Pop-Pop’s office was as messy as it’d always been, but that was what I liked about it. I stood in the center (because there really wasn’t much space to sit, let alone stand) clutching the 285-bound stack of papers. He was distracted momentarily, but when he saw what I was holding, he stopped rustling through miscellaneous class notes and loose-leaf papers forming mountains on his desk and laughed heartily, beamed at me proudly.
“There it is — you did it, Sweetheart! You did it.”
“Tell me what you think, okay? And be honest — it’s not complete, but I need your opinion.”
“Of course, of course.”
He took it, thumbed through it, looked at me with such a sense of accomplishment I felt I might shatter. But he looked away and I busied myself with explanations —
“Now, there are some parts with sticky notes, indicating uncertain ideas, jumbled thoughts and such, and this is where I need your help. And also — ” my voice faltered, I choked on my words — “it’s a story, y’know? It’s not real, so keep that in mind.”
“Of course,” he nodded, “I understand; I’ll read it with an open mind, an open heart. ” He smiled at me. “You did it, Sweetheart.”
I couldn’t distract myself any longer: a tear sprouted, and he hugged me.
“Yeah,” I wiped it away hurriedly, “I can’t wait to meet your students,” I said, but what I meant was: I can’t wait to watch you work.
He collected his textbooks, and, placing my story gently inside his briefcase, said, “We have to be careful now, remember to be kind to the raptors.”
I nodded dutifully.
“You have your sword?”
“Yep. Ready.” I gripped the handle so tight that the skin around my knuckles screamed. I loosened the grip, took a deep breath.
He opened the door and we eased ourselves into the hallway. It appeared deserted, dilapidated. The lights flickered, beige plaster hung from the ceiling, brown mildew clumped in the crevices between floor and wall, wall and ceiling.
“It’s not very far,” he assured me, but as we came to the corner, one of them whipped around, snarling.
Fear shot through every cell in my body and I stopped, paralyzed. Pop-Pop was in front and it came up to him with a look in its eye like it finally found its bowl of food. It wagged its long, thick tail with brown hair covering green scales. Pop-Pop stood his ground and the raptor leaped up, licked his face like a puppy, and began to nibble on his jacket. Without hesitation, Pop-Pop sliced the raptor’s throat in one long swift motion. His machete glistened with purple-red blood and the debris from decapitated heads.
“See, this is when you have to get them: when they’re small like this, manageable, controllable. They’re just babies here, and you gotta get them now before they turn into the bigger ones, the ones you can’t control.”
Six feet tall and six feet long, from the tip of the tail to the tip of the nose, the baby raptor lay motionless on the ground where brown mildew and purple blood formed a toxic soup we almost couldn’t avoid. But Pop-Pop took my hand and helped me to leap over. Even still, the sludge seeped into the edges of my pant leg.
“Uh oh,” he said, “that stain won’t come out; believe me, I’ve tried. Your mother just hates it.”
We made it the rest of the way without incident.
I sat in the back of his classroom, in the corner, attempting to blend in. I took out my laptop like everyone else, and tried to follow along. His lecture was swift, sincere, emphatic. He used his body, he used his voice, he used distant emotions I didn’t know he had. He moved the students the way a gentle breeze on an autumn day whistles through the leaves of a large tree: his touch was simple, and each leaf moved only ever so subtly, but the effect was mesmerizing from the perspective of an outsider, sitting on a hill just far enough away to see the whole creature sway.
At the end, he motioned to me in the back, and all heads turned to face me as he said, “And this is my daughter, K; she just finished her first book and she’s here today to learn from you, from us.” He smiled sweetly, and my heart swelled with admiration. He began to gather his documents, his loose-leaf sheets and notes, but, as it was the end of class, he was swarmed with students and their questions.
I riffled through my bag, attempting to organize everything neatly. I had it all set and ready to go, but realized I didn’t have my keys. Remember to have your keys ready, Pop-Pop had said, the raptors are quick, but you must be quicker.
I shuffled among the objects: laptop; notebooks; books; folded, crumpled papers; colored pencils; colored pens; trash — they were nowhere to be found. It wasn’t until I dumped everything out on the floor and spread my few possessions around, bumping into the person next to me a few times by accident — who promptly ignored me like average people ignore homeless beggars on the street corner — that I finally found the sharp, metal key attached to the smooth, black key fob that went to my car.
“You ready?” Pop-Pop, free from young curiosities for the time being, held out his elbow and I took it with the hand not confined by keys or swords. We made our way back to his office, where students piled in, eager to hear his insights on their projects.
“I’ll meet you in the car,” he said. “Is that alright? You can handle them now, I know, Sweetheart. Just be gentle with the younger ones, like I showed you.”
“And the big ones?”
“They shouldn’t be out yet, not at this time.” He looked at his watch, apprehensively. “Well, on second thought, you better hurry, it’s about time.” He gave me an urgent look. “Go on,” he said. “I’ll meet up with you back at the house, if not before.”
“But will you make it back in time?” Anxiety trickled through my voice, like rain streaking a dirty car window. I motioned to the gaggle of students who remained, unaware of the hazards.
“Yes, I’ll be fine. You go now, I’ll see you soon. I promise. We’ll have dinner with Mother.”
“Okay,” I smiled, “I’d like that.”
I gathered my bag, my sword, my keys. I turned away from the young minds, the unbroken hearts, shut the door, and took my first step into the musty, rotten hall by myself.
I can do this, I can do this, I can do this. They’re just babies, K. They can’t hurt you, not if you don’t let them. They give you time to kill them before they bite you. And it’s the bite you have to watch out for, Pop-Pop had said. Because once the babies bite you, then you’re dead, gone, lost. But you have time. You have time. Just be strong. They can’t hurt you, not if you don’t let them.
I began to sprint-walk, crouched low like a ninja. I made-believe I had a samurai on my back and the documents housing the secrets to life most people don’t know. Most people, with their routines, and their blind faith, and their simple, one-track minds — most people were in need of help, of answers, of enlightenment. Pop-Pop never said so in so many words because his humble mind wouldn’t let him, but I knew that’s why he did what he did: he taught the needy, sacrificing himself for the simple hope that some might break from this dim shell of an uncomplicated life they’ve been given. Such a grey world, such an uncreative landscape.
Such a waste.
But Pop-Pop had color. And he’d given it to me, in the words I carried in the papers on my back. I would help him, I was his uninitiated partner. I just had to prove myself and make it through this maze of a run-down old educational institution, make it to the car before the real demons emerge and I’m lost to the Under.
I was in full-sprint now, hurriedly, quietly, shuffling my way through the grey-brown halls. But then, up ahead, the walls began to shift, and the corridor changed. Where there was once an open pathway now showed a dead-end. I stood frozen, sensing a presence in the corners of a nearby doorway — what is this Harry Potter bullshit? Sliding my sword from its sheath, I creeped, inching into the abandoned space of uncertainty and fear. I heard a shriek, a whimper, and the careful tactics Pop-Pop had taught me flew from the rational spaces of my mind.
A girl and a boy emerged at the end of the corridor, followed closely by a snarling, salivating, aggressive pup. This one was ready; this one had been waiting too long. I ran at it and, embodying Pop-Pop, I sliced through its rigid, furred, scaled skin like it was a ripe watermelon on a warm summer’s day. Seeds and pulp gushed forth: it fell with a sigh.
“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!” the girl cried, grasping at my coat sleeves. “You saved us, you saved us, you saved us,” she sobbed.
“It’s okay, it’s okay. Shh, shh, shh. It’s all okay now.” I held her in my arms; when she finally moved away, I saw her black dress was in tatters, covered in soot, and her face was smeared with purple-red blood and red-red blood: pup and human had torn her apart in the past, it was clear.
The boy was tall, lean, looked lost, wide-eyed, and shook with adrenaline. Neither of them had swords, weapons of any kind, or keys, it seemed. The girl was barefoot, but from the pearl accessories and rich, gold watch — now scratched and sullied with blood — I assumed she must have begun the evening with heels, most likely black and shiny.
“What do we do?” She said, having composed herself slightly. “Where do we go?”
“It’s okay, follow me. I know these halls.”
“You can get us to the parking lot? On the other side of the wall?”
“Yes,” I said, remembering the path Pop-Pop and I had walked this morning, after our long drive in, after our long talk — what now felt like it had been years ago. “Follow me.”
They walked slightly behind, and we soon fell into a rhythm of darting and ducking and hiding behind swiftly changing walls, as the pups trotted by, oblivious. Their senses of smell advanced with their age, and we were relatively safe as long as we hid, slowed our breathing, calmed our minds. They couldn’t get us so long as we reminded ourselves of our strength. I taught the girl and the boy to breathe, to relax their muscles, to hide, and slowly I watched as deep hues of red splashed across the girl’s face: her skin flushed with indignation as she chanted, “I am not giving up, I am not giving up, I am not giving up,” like a mantra.
“Good,” I said, “good. Okay, one is coming back and it will sniff us out where we are. I’m going to go into the hall and kill it.” The boy, confused and scratched and grey, suddenly and without warning, darted out into the hall.
“HEY! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”
“I CAN MAKE IT! WATCH MEEE!”
The fear that had paralyzed me before greeted me again — gripped me — as I watched the boy be ripped, torn, sliced to shreds by a pup raptor who’d been hungry for too long.
“SON OF A BITCH!” The boy yelled. “I ALMOST HAD YOU. YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME.” He lunged and scratched, but it was no good. He was dead in a matter of seconds, a pile of pulp in a grey hallway.
The girl shrieked, crumpling to her knees. “NO NO NO NO NOOOO.”
I yanked her wrist, and we ran. Slicing the raptor’s throat, I stabbed it twice more. You deserve it, you fuck.
“The door!” She yelled, “there’s the door! Do you have your keys?!”
“I have them! I have them!”
But when we got to the door, I saw it was cracked open and there wasn’t even a place for a key. Perhaps the keys are for the doors beyond? I couldn’t remember.
Three doors of the same heavy, thick, damaged wood and none of them required keys of any kind. All were propped slightly, but all weighed tons, like moving the base of a thick, 3,000-year-old sequoia tree.
The carport was grey, but the air was moist with the hope of rain.
“Do you know where your car is?” The girl asked. “It’s almost time, you know. I hope you have everything with you.”
“I’m waiting for someone,” I said. “But you go on. You have a car, right?”
She nodded. And without another word, she went on: I knew she wouldn’t wait for anybody, that she was only protecting herself now.
It was almost time now, but I wasn’t leaving without Pop-Pop. I stood in the middle of the parking lot, halfway between my car and the wall with three doors.
Come on, Pop-Pop, come on, I willed. Finally, I saw the outermost door as it inched open, and his jet-black hair peeked out.
“Pop-Pop!” I yelled. But his head whipped around, to my left, his right, and I watched his eyes fill with horror. There, emerging from the shadows of the ground was The Big One, etched with lines of age and destruction, towering three stories high.
There it is; we’re doomed. Somehow Pop-Pop managed to race out before the Demon saw — but it smelled him, ohh did it smell him. Students raced behind him, trusting in him and his instincts — oh, what they would learn; oh, how they would be destroyed.
A large boy was too slow, and, as I watched, shaking, from my position between two cars, I saw the Demon sniff him out, saw the boy drop all his papers, his notes, his studied knowledge — useless now. He attempted to hide between two cars just in front of me and I cursed his closeness. Pop-Pop was aisles away, closer to the car now, sneaking his way nearer to me. I felt his presence and I wished he would stay away. Pop-Pop! Be smart now. Don’t sacrifice yourself for me. Can’t you see how near it is to me? Can’t you see?
I didn’t dare move. The stories Pop-Pop had told me when I was just a pup myself came flooding back. He’d told me their legends, They’re just stories, K. But I knew now; I knew they were the truth.
The Demon tossed two cars in front of me — like tossing rice in a skillet — with an effortless, unconscious flip of its matured tail. I cowed as the boy’s screams echoed through the damp air, bounced off the shattered glass.
“NO, PLEASE,” he pleaded. “Why me, why me, why me,” he sobbed. The Demon had him in its clutches now, dangling him like grapes into the mouth of a lover.
The Demon communicates not in any language we know, K.
But how then, Pop-Pop?
It communicates telepathically.
How does it do that? Why, Pop-Pop?
I knew now; bent down, nose pressed to gravel, hands clawing at my ears, I cried. “Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop!” I heard the screams of the boy all too clearly in my soul, felt his tears on my face, his throbbing anguish in my chest. I felt him dying slowly, yet thrashing in the Demon’s grasp, not ready to give up.
It’s just you, the Demon said, don’t make sense of it. There is no ‘why,’ you silly boy — this is just how it is. You ask ‘why’ like you’re so special or like there’s a lesson or a reason or a hope for it to get better, for me to end. You ask ‘why’ but you can’t know, can’t escape it.
“Is there no way? I am lost now? What can I give you to let me go?” The boy begged. And then, more desperately, “I’ll find you another! To take my place! A juicier, bigger me. Please, oh please, oh please.” His wails filled the space, what felt small and cramped now. I cried in fear as I watched in paralyzed horror the stories of my childhood come to life before me like a play in Hell — in Under.
There is one thing you can do, that I will allow, the Demon mused in cocky enjoyment.
— Under, Pop-Pop had said, Is where we go when we are destroyed by the Demon —
I give this option to all my victims and some choose it, said the Demon. They say it makes being destroyed better. I will allow you the option to say goodbye. To your loved ones, your home, your life, yourself. I will give you a short time to accept your fate. And then I will come for you. You can’t escape it, Young One. But this way, you can leave calm, fulfilled. Though you will be destroyed, you will at least have peace of mind — for the others, of course.
“Oh God, Oh God, Oh God,” the boy wailed.
Why, Pop-Pop? What about God?
Well, K, there used to be Big Gods and Little Gods, but unfortunately, they all died out long before our time. We have no more gods, Big or Little now. Now, we just have the Demon and Its pups.
Oh-ho-ho, the Demon laughed. He won’t help you now, child. You know now, it’s just me. So what is it, boy? What is your choice? To say goodbye and to leave with peace or to be destroyed now in anguish?
The boy cried, “I have no one, it won’t do any good. Just take me now. If this is my only choice, just take me now.”
But that’s the trick, said Pop-Pop. The Demon convinces you you have no one, in your final moments. It doesn’t give you a chance to escape once It’s witnessed you.
My chest ripped apart, my soul split into a million broken cells. In my terror, my fascination, I hadn’t noticed Pop-Pop inching closer. His fingers laced around my elbow.
“K,” he whispered, “we have to go but not yet, wait until It’s occupied with consuming the boy, destroying the boy — only then can we have freedom when It has another in its clutches.”
I nodded, trapped, broken, and sobbing.
“Watch now, K,” he whispered, “You must learn; learn the ways of this world.”
I looked up through slit eyes.
“Look at what the Demon does, the Big One, the Dinosaur. It takes Its victim in Its mouth, but It doesn’t ingest it all the way, no — look. It chews it into bits, into a sludge, into a paste, and It spits it into those big straws there, you see? Those straws they advertise on TV to give to the little pups to tame them — do you see? But that is not what those straws do at all. Those straws are filled with the fear and the pain of Its victims and it is like a drug concoction for the young pups. Without those chew-straws, those treats, the pups wouldn’t necessarily grow up to be vicious like the Big One. But, see, the Big One has us all brainwashed: It’s convinced us to advertise the very thing that will bring about our demise. We are doomed from the very start — do you see?”
I nodded, mute, and watched, horrified, as the Demon spit the undigested boy into a straw, placing the straw in a stack of straws and saw a Man, dead-eyed and grey, carry the now filled container of straws into the dilapidated educational institution, to pass out to the pups, no doubt.
“There,” Pop-Pop said, “you see?”
A moment passed with nothing but the sound of wind and I wondered about the trees and where they had all gone.
“Pop-Pop, where are all the leaves?”
“Well,” he said, “they’ve all long been dead. But, you know, it’s up to us now to make the wind to revive the leaves.”
“And how do we do that?”
“We run, K — we run, now, RUN!”
Kara Someday is a novelist and fiction writer. Her short stories and flash fiction have been published in The Ignatian Literary Magazine, Short Fiction Break, and FIVE:2:ONE Magazine‘s #thesideshow. She is currently seeking publishers for her first novel, Things That Fly.