I awoke to the sound of my phone buzzing on the bedside table.
“Hello?” I said, groggily.
“You’re that paranormal hunter, right?”
I had the website changed, new business cards made up, and even sunk some money into an ad campaign. Still, all callers insisted on referring to me as the “paranormal hunter;” a term originally coined by tabloid papers who made me out to be some sort of monster-fighting hero. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t negatively affect my livelihood. Those articles made me a laughing stock to skeptics everywhere; including the local authorities I sought to work with on occasion.
“Actually, it’s paranormal consultant.”
“Right, sorry. I need your help.”
She sounded just like the rest. Scared, confused, and at the end of her rope. I was the last call anyone made in situations like this. A desperate cry for help when all else failed. It’s as if dialing the number was some admittance of insanity. Or worse, a confirmation that the things that go bump in the night are really out there, waiting in the shadows to pounce on their next victims.
“I’m here to help. What can I do for you?”
She let out a long sigh before continuing.
“Well, you’re not going to believe this…”
That’s what they all said.
“I received this odd list of rules in the mail. I didn’t pay it any mind at first, thinking it was a mix-up at the post office, but now, every time I unknowingly break a rule-“
“Let me guess, there’s some sort of strange, paranormal consequence?”
“Yes, exactly! How did you know?”
Lists like these had been popping up all over the country. Some in hotel rooms, others in apartments or employee manuals. They were all the same. Supernatural calamity befalls any victim who refuses to follow the guidelines. When enough rules are broken, it usually results in the person’s death.
“Not to worry. I’ve dealt with this kind of thing before. I’ll take your case. Just text me your address and I’ll be right over.”
“Thank you so much! I wasn’t sure you would believe me.”
“In my line of work, it pays to have an open mind.”
After disconnecting and throwing on some clothes, I got into my car and took off in the direction of her house. It was in town, so the drive was a short one. Upon arriving, my new client rushed out to greet me.
“Thank God you’re here. I’m at my wit’s end.”
Her arms were crossed and breathing labored. She was clearly out of sorts.
“Sorry, where are my manners? I’m Jessica.”
“Nice to make your acquaintance. I’m Henry.”
Jessica was young; maybe mid to late 20s. Dark hair, freckled skin. I probably would have found her attractive if she didn’t remind me of my daughter.
“Please, come inside.”
We walked to the front door and entered the house. After hanging up my hat, I took a look around. It was a lovely home. Quaint, but spacious.
“Can I get you some coffee?”
“No thanks. If it’s all the same to you, I would prefer to get to work right away. Do you have the list?”
She picked up a sheet of paper from the coffee table and handed it to me. There were ten rules in total.
“How many rules have you broken so far?”
She looked embarrassed.
“Seven, all together.”
“That’s good, Jessica. It means there’s still time.”
“Still time for what?” She asked.
“Time to end things.”
I pulled a lighter out of my pocket and held the flame beneath the page.
“What are you doing?”
“Not many people know this, but burning a list before all the rules are broken summons the demon who wrote it.”
She glared at me, petrified; a look of absolute fear across her face.
The flame spread to the outer edges of the paper.
“Yes. These lists are powerful, demonic contracts. With every rule you break, you’re tempting fate, inviting the demon to absorb your soul.”
The page had all but burned up now.
“Yes. They feed off of them. With a list like this, the demon has access to your soul. Every misstep is another chance to feed. After all rules are broken, your soul is theirs completely, as per the unwritten terms of the contract.”
The sheet of paper turned to ash and fell to the floor. Jessica started to ask another question, but I held my hand up to stop her.
“Wait! It’s coming.”
We watched as a cloud of smoke formed at the center of the living room. It grew until it reached the ceiling and then swirled around, faster with each passing second. After a minute or so, it dissipated, revealing the demon within.
It took the form of a man in turn of the century attire. Gray hair. Gray mustache. Jessica walked over and stood by his side.
“I see you’ve met my daughter.”
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised at this revelation, but all the signs of foul play were there that I should have picked up on. No car in the driveway, no family photos on the wall, and no signs of a struggle in the house, despite Jessica having broken most of the rules.
“What is this?”
The demon laughed.
“You’ve made quite the impression downstairs with your… heroic shenanigans over the years. I’ve been tasked with eliminating you.”
I reached into my coat for a weapon, but the demon gestured for me to stop.
“Please, Henry. I have another idea in mind. Why don’t we make a deal?”
“A deal, huh? And what exactly did you have in mind?”
“Give me your soul and I’ll bring back your daughter.”
My heart sank. Chelsea was the whole reason I hunted supernatural things in the first place. She had died over a decade ago in a house-fire; one that I discovered, after years of investigation, was caused by some unknown entity. I was never the same after that. Instead of grieving in the way most parents do, I made it my life’s work to track down her killer and everything like it.
“What do you say, Henry? It’s a fair trade.”
I would give anything to save Chelsea, even my soul, but not like this. Demonic resurrections always came with side effects. It was very likely that, if Chelsea was brought back, she would succumb to an insatiable blood thirst, not unlike that of demons themselves. I could never put her through something so terrible.
“Not a chance.”
His lips contorted into a wicked grin.
“I thought you might say that. That’s why I had my daughter slip something into your pocket.”
Confused, I reached into my coat and pulled out a scrap of paper. There were three rules written on it:
1. Don’t enter the house
2. Don’t burn the list
3. Accept the demon’s deal
That son of a bitch.
Without knowing it, I had broken all of the rules on the list, giving this demon full-access to my soul. All he had to do now was come and take it.
“Sorry, Henry. You’re mine now.”
Their skin melted away, dripping from their frames like candlewax, revealing the red, connective tissue underneath. Then, their eyes turned black and mouths opened wide; no teeth or tongues within. Just empty pits of darkness. One kiss would suck the life right out of me.
Before I could reach into my coat again, Jessica leapt across the room and pinned me to the wall, forcing her mouth against my face. My soul began to untether itself from me. The sensation was a strange one; there was an immense feeling of pain, but also heartache, the likes of which I have only felt once before.
As soul and body separated, something bubbled to the surface. It wasn’t so much my life flashing before my eyes as it was a single memory playing out in my mind…
“I’ll be fine, Dad. Stop worrying.”
“I know. It’s just that-“
“I’m your little girl and it’s your job to worry about me?”
“Am I that predictable?”
“Only when it comes to caring about me.”
I looked around at the house and it saddened me. I was happy for Chelsea, but I couldn’t believe how quickly she had grown up.
“You know you can come visit some time, right? It’s only a two hour flight. I can pay for the ticket. Just say the word, whenever you feel you want to-“
“Dad, I’m still your daughter. I’ll visit when I can, but you have to come to terms with the fact that I’m an adult with a life of my own. Between work and college, I can’t always come when you call. Okay?”
I laughed as a tear rolled down my cheek.
“So you’re the parent now, is that it?”
“If you don’t leave soon, you’re going to miss your flight.”
She was right. I admit, I was cutting it pretty close.
“I know, I just… I’m going to miss you, that’s all.”
“I’ll miss you too, dad. I’m only a phone call away.”
With that, I left the house and drove to the airport. Little did I know then, but that would be the last time I ever saw my little girl alive.
I hadn’t thought of that day in quite some time. It was locked away, deep in my heart, for fear of the feelings it would evoke in me. In this dire moment, my life hanging in the balance, it served as a reminder. A reminder of why I did the things no one else would dare do. Why I fought to save others and kill the things that left evil in their wake.
It was all for her.
With what strength I had left, I reached into my coat, pulled out a blade, and plunged it into Jessica’s side. She backed off and fell to the floor, writhing in pain.
It couldn’t kill demons, but it sure as hell slowed them down.
Before the man could come to his daughter’s aid, I quickly sliced my hand open and used the blood to paint a sigil on the wall. One push at the center and the demons would vanish, cast back into the underworld where they belonged. It was a temporary fix, but I was in no condition to fend them off.
The man called out to me, my hand over the sigil, ready to send him packing.
“Don’t you want to know what happened to Chelsea?”
He was stalling, I could tell, but I had the upper-hand and could afford to hold off for a moment. It might have been foolish, but I gave in to my curiosity and listened.
“She screamed when the flames overtook her. Her skin peeled and flaked while she cried.”
He was lying. He didn’t know what happened. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to turn away. Even a fabricated story about my daughter was better than no story at all. As morbid as it sounds, it made me feel closer to her. His words offered a setting in which I could fantasize about saving her; something I often did but struggled to picture. It was an addiction of mine.
“She was so terrified she couldn’t stop speaking nonsense – counting backwards from ten. I killed her before the fire could just to shut her up!”
My blood ran cold. That was something I taught her when she was little.
I awoke to Chelsea screaming and ran to her bedroom.
“Sweetie, what’s wrong?”
Her breathing was sporadic. Something certainly had her rattled.
“It’s here! The monster!”
It was another one of her night terrors. Ever since her mother died, she would get them at least twice a week. Every time, I would come to the recue and calm her down.
“Okay, Sweetie. It’s just a bad dream. You’re still sleeping.”
She wouldn’t let up.
“It’s gonna get me!”
I took her in my arms and held her.
“Remember what I taught you. Count backwards from ten and it will all fade away.”
She whimpered for a moment and then began counting.
“Ten… Nine… Eight… Seven…”
Her breaths were becoming more even and controlled.
“Six… Five… Four… Three…”
She stopped crying and loosened her grip on my arm.
And just like that, she was awake, free of the nightmares that plagued her.
“Alright, Sweetie. You’re okay now. Go back to sleep.”
She offered me an innocent smile and crawled back under the covers. I left the door open just a crack; enough so that I could hear her and come running if she needed me.
Just like I did every time.
He had to have been telling the truth. He could have never known about that otherwise.
“Well, Henry, I’m the one who killed her all those years ago. She had a list, just like yours, and broke every rule. I showed up to collect.”
My heart nearly stopped right then and there. All this time spent chasing monsters and he was right here, in the same room with me; the thing responsible for taking my little girl’s life.
“Come on, Henry. Don’t you want to avenge your daughter?”
My hand hovered over the sigil. Jessica was still on the floor. It took everything in me not to pull away and lash out. That’s just what he wanted. He knew I didn’t have the energy needed to kill him. Not with my soul tattered.
“She begged for her life, you know. It was pathetic.”
I was dangerously close to taking the bait. All I could see was Chelsea’s house going up in flames.
“You were her father. Why didn’t you save her, Henry?”
I needed to calm down, otherwise, I would surely retaliate and be as good as dead. No more hunting. No more lives to save. No killing this demon, once and for all.
“Some father you were. Leaving your girl out in the world to die, all alone.”
I counted backwards in my head.
Ten… Nine… Eight…
“What’s the matter, Henry? Too scared to fight back?”
It was working. The anger and sadness were still there, but his voice was fading from the foreground.
Seven… Six… Five…
“I can only imagine what’s happening to her soul downstairs. Oh the humanity!”
The adrenaline in my veins was slowing.
Four… Three… Two…
“This is the only chance you’ll ever have, Henry! It’s now or never!”
Calmer than I was before, I pushed my hand into the sigil with as much force as I could muster.
He cried out, but it was no use. His and Jessica’s bodies vanished in a flash of light, leaving behind only an unpleasant, burning odor and faint impressions where they were on the carpet.
“Thank God that’s over.”
I stumbled out to the car and got into the driver’s seat, feeling a little bit better than I had just moments before. Before driving off, I took one last look at the house, feeling a regret similar to when I left Chelsea years ago.
“This isn’t over.”
With that, I took off down the road, wounded, but with some newfound clarity. I know what I have to do, and no person or thing is going to stop me. That demon’s life will be mine, but, with the information he gave me, there’s another matter I have to attend to first.
I’m going to save Chelsea’s soul.
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