He knew it was going to be a bad day before he even went to sleep the night before. The moon had been a blood-red color, peeking out of the black masses of subtlety shifting clouds like an unblinking, infected eye.
And that could only mean one thing.
But, oh, what a day.
Mark Truman had woken up at 6 am, like he did every weekday, taking some solace in knowing that it was at least Friday. His back was aching, his left leg had somehow gone numb, and he had a massive headache. All this was really nothing out of the usual, certainly not a precursor to how horrible the day was going to be. And possibly how much worse it could get.
It had officially started off when he had tried to make himself a hasty breakfast in his kitchen. Mark wasn’t really a big breakfast eater, but he liked to have something in his stomach so it wouldn’t rumble before lunchtime. He put the toast in the toaster, then set a glass down on the counter while he opened the refrigerator to get a carton of milk. While he was taking the milk out, his elbow brushed against the glass, knocking if from the counter, and making him jump in surprise as it shattered apart on the scuffed linoleum floor. With a sigh, he swept up the splinters of glass, miraculously not getting cut, perhaps the only plus side in the whole day, and decided to take a swig directly from the carton. He didn’t notice that the milk had expired last week.
Mark gagged, his throat convulsing as he rushed toward the sink, and half-chortled, half-vomited the rancid liquid into the metal basin. He washed it out, wiped the spittle from his mouth with the back of his hand, and dumped the remaining contents into the sink. Mark put on his coat, the taste of sour milk still permeating his aching throat, and rushed out the front door of his second-floor apartment, making sure to lock it. He was halfway down the stairs to the parking lot below when he realized he had forgotten about the toast. Mark rushed back to his apartment, but by then, of course, the toast was unrecognizable as anything of edible substance. He threw it in the trash, blew out the remaining drifts of smoke emanating from the toaster, and left his small apartment a second time, already hating the day.
He nearly got sideswiped pulling out of the parking lot, for one thing. The diesel Ford pickup barely missed colliding with his front panel as he approached the street, honking loudly before continuing on its way. Mark honked back, even though it was clearly his fault (he had been searching his console for his Mariah Carey CD, which was conspicuously missing). He steadied his nerves, and began the fifteen minute drive to the office building where he worked.
Taking the route he was most comfortable with, a construction crew had him detour off of Main Street onto Chestnut, making him loop around to bypass the work area. Mark sullenly toughed out one pothole after another, praying that his ten-year-old Honda’s suspension would keep up with the uneven surface, when a dashboard light caught his attention. “Check Engine”, it stated.
“Perfect,” Mark muttered. He thought the motor didn’t sound exactly right. Probably needed a tune-up, but it could be anything ranging from a new alternator to a worn belt. Either way, he didn’t have the money to get it fixed. Mark slapped the steering wheel with his palm, clearly frustrated.
Sometimes, in his more irrational moments, when his emotions overrode his rational senses, he wished that they would just take him, put him out of this misery called life. Honestly, how much worse could it be? This thought was usually followed by at least a dozen Hail Marys and a prayer of forgiveness to the God above and a “just kidding” to the one reigning below.
As much as the dashboard light pissed him off, work turned out to be even worse.
A quick summary: cold coffee, spilled over the front of his shirt when a rushing intern slammed into him (accidentally, of course). His favorite sandwich, turkey on rye, unavailable in the cafeteria (of course, they had plenty of fresh egg salad, which he detested). His computer crashing not once, not twice, but three times (a personal record). And, to top it all off, he spied the pretty girl who was flirting with him only yesterday flirting with somebody else at the water cooler. Mark shook his head, and glumly went back to typing up his boring report, not caring about the typos he was making. Let editing share some of the fun, he thought to himself.
At five o’clock, Mark turned off his computer and cleaned up his work station a little, shrugged on his coat, and left the office complex to stand on the side of the street along with everyone else. His friend, Tom James, stood next to him, a leather briefcase clutched in one hand. On the other side of Mark, a nerdy accountant by the name of Marvin Something sidled up to the curb.
“Hey, Mark,” Tom said.
“Hey, Tom. How are you?”
Tom sighed loudly. “Been having one of those days. You know what I mean?”
Mark nodded, glancing down the street, waiting impatiently for it to just get over with. “Say no more, I know exactly what you mean, my friend.”
Tom followed his gaze, but there was nothing to see quite yet. “Hey,” he said. “What are you doing this weekend?”
Mark shrugged. “I was actually thinking of playing some tennis at the Y. Haven’t got a partner yet, though.”
Tom smiled broadly. “Your search is over, my friend. I’ll be glad to join you. Just give me a call tonight, and let me know when you want to be there.”
“Cool, I’ll do that. And thanks.”
The accountant, Marvin, sneezed loudly then, drawing Mark’s attention. “Bless you,” he said. Marvin didn’t answer him, looking nervously beyond him to the crest in the road ahead. Mark didn’t have to turn his head to know what was coming.
Nobody was quite sure exactly where they came from. Or, to be more precise, how they got here. There were theories that a giant hole opened up in the Earth, somewhere, and they crawled up out of it to wander around top-side. But for all Mark knew, they could have dropped out of the sky. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t for him to know.
The demons shuffled down the street, usually walking alone, although there were a few sparse groups of two or three within the procession. Their features were hidden by long, tattered robes that trailed behind them, scraping along the gravel surface, too dense for the wind to flutter. The sound they made was a grumbling repertoire of pain and blood-curdling torture, penetrating the air with a dark force that paled the faces of those who had to listen to it. They plodded along slowly, laboriously, as if the act of moving was something they were wholly unaccustomed to doing.
Mark’s eyes widened as one of the foul-smelling monstrosities approached his side of the street, pausing directly in front of him. Despite the freezing temperature, he felt a bead of sweat run down from his brow, sweeping across his cheek. His nose wrinkled at the mingling aroma of brimstone, something that faintly smelled of rotting cabbage, and something else. Something much, much worse. Mark’s heart leaped into his throat as the demon raised one splotched and gray-tissued hand toward him, hovering in the air long enough for several writhing maggots to fall off of the withering fingers to clump on the pavement at its feet. He managed to stifle back a scream as the hand came closer...closer...
And settled on Tom’s shoulder.
“NO!!! NO!!!!” Tom screeched. “NO, PLEASE GOD, NO!!” He grabbed onto Mark’s arm, but it was a useless gesture. Mark leaned away as the demon’s claws sprung out from the hand, digging beyond the shabby fabric of Tom’s sport coat, piercing into his flesh to inescapably snag him. As close as the creature stood to them, Mark was still unable to see its face beyond the dark shadowing of the cloak. He considered it another bright point in an otherwise dismal day.
The demon dragged Tom from the sidewalk, powerfully holding onto him with that one hand while he led him squirming into the street, ignoring his screams, his pleas for mercy, his crying, his insane babbling that it was just a dream, that he hadn’t really been chosen, after all. In an instant, the demon procession had disappeared entirely, going back to wherever it is they came from, their human baggage in tow. Mark was all too happy that the day was finally over with. He took a deep breath, and turned around to head for the parking lot and his piece of shit car. “Hey,” he heard from behind him.
Mark peered at Marvin, who fidgeted with the bulky frame of his glasses. “Yeah?” he asked.
“You still want a partner for that tennis thing?”
Mark smiled at the little man. “Didn’t know you played, Marvin.” He looked at him thoughtfully. “Sure, looks like I’ll need one, now.”
They laughed at the same moment, having a good chuckle while they walked toward the parking lot together, making plans for the upcoming weekend.