Ralph sat in a booth, tucked away in the corner of the busy store, invisible to everyone around him. He didn’t mind it. He was a small, unassuming boy that was often overlooked at no fault of his own. Being small had that effect. He spent his entire life being invisible to people. Home, school, wherever – people just had a way of ignoring him. He spent his entire life doing what other people wanted him to. All his life his parents had told him: you’re going to this private school; you’re playing these sports; you’re learning these instruments. What he liked to do was draw, create, but he wouldn’t dare show anyone out of fear they would make him stop. He spent his entire life trying to figure out why he was the way that he was: awkward, nervous, confused, out of place. Here though, he had no problem with it. He had no problem being invisible.
Starbucks: “the Human Serengeti”, as he liked to think. People from all over the city filter through its doors on a daily basis to get their fix of sugary, sweet, overly caffeinated, overly priced coffee – as if it were a key step in a chain letter that if missed would only result in death. Starbucks is the greatest place on earth, Ralph thought to himself. Not for the coffee, in fact he hated the stuff, it was for the people-watching. Every day after school, without fail, he would hop on the train, pick a stop, and camp out at one of the many drinking holes scattered across the city just to spend his afternoon sitting in silence, watching. He would draw pictures of the people he would see or even write little stories involving them, but mostly he just watched and observed their behaviors.
On this particular day the medium sized shop was buzzing like a hive full of angry bees. People talked on cell phones at loud volumes, trying to talk over the noise around them. A small group of teenage girls sat at a table next to him, giggling as they passed their cell phone to one another, totally oblivious to Ralph’s presence.
At the register, a middle aged woman with heavy bags under her eyes ordered a dark coffee with 2 shots of espresso, while a baby screamed in her arms – clearly her day had gotten the better of her.
Behind her was a girl in a grey sweatshirt with the words Georgetown University in large block letters printed on it with a small stack of textbooks in her hand, a backpack slung over her shoulders. She looked like she was seconds away from falling sleep right where she stood. If it weren’t for the screaming baby in front of her Ralph bet she just might have.
Behind her stood a young man that looked more like a healthy zombie than a human. He had skin that made him look like he was made of white sand which made it easy to see the blue tint of veins in his cheeks. He was tall and skinny with a dark shadow of facial hair covering his jaw, and eyes that looked like he had flecks of ember burning in them. He had a determined look on his face, like he was there for a reason. Ralph eyed the odd looking young man curiously from his seat. While the young man ordered his drink, he quickly opened his notebook and began sketching the figure.
As he looked up he noticed the ghostly looking figure sitting by the door, watching the mother and her baby. The young man followed the lady with his eyes as she walked out the door, careful not to draw any attention to himself. Ralph grabbed his things and raced out the door after him, keeping a safe distance behind them trying not to get caught.
The woman walked with an awkward gait, half in a haze, causing her to trip over her own two feet. As she fell, baby in hand, the pale young man stepped into her way and caught her, as if they had rehearsed it. It was a weird feeling that he had no way of proving but he could have sworn the young man had something to do with the woman falling. Watching it happen in real time almost felt like his mind was hazy and momentarily stuck in glue.
Ralph was about to dismiss the notion out of his mind, when a car came flying through the intersection and crashed head first into a parked car with a loud bang and a show of flying glass. A crowd of people streamed out of nearby shops, frantically addressing the scene in front of them. A man in a suit helped the woman and baby to her feet and ushered her inside a nearby salon. Three other men fought hard against mangled steel, trying to pry the unconscious driver out of the overturned car.
The Boy looked around in shock, trying his hardest to make sense of what had just happened right in front of him. Something was off. Through all of the commotion, the pale figure had vanished. He pushed a block and half through the crowd, looking feverishly for any sign of the vanished young man.
Across the street, staring directly at him from the entrance to a small alley way tucked in between a pizza place with a flashing neon sign and a convenience store was the young man. Even from the distance, he could see the burning red in his eyes. He raced across the street, darting between stopped cars, and impatient drivers that had no idea why they were at a standstill, only to meet the empty alley way.
“Why are you following me?”
The boy whipped around, with his arms in a fighting stance. He had never been in a fight a day in his life, but the stranger didn’t know that. To his surprise, there was no one there, just the alley way and a stray cat that had come out of a nearby garbage can.
Sitting crouched on a fire escape, peering down at him was the pale face of the stranger. From this close, his face looked gaunt, blue veins left swirled traces through his cheeks. “I’ll say it again, one last time. This time I expect an answer,” he said, “Why are you following me?” His voice was gravely, and he spoke with an accent, one that didn’t sound familiar.
“I wasn’t…didn’t mean to,” Ralph said, with a crack in his voice.
The young man jumped from the fire escape with surprising grace, and landed on the ground without a sound. “Then what were you doing? I know you saw me in that Starbucks, and now you’re standing in front of me in this alley”. The young man took slow deliberate steps towards him as he spoke.
“That lady,” Ralph blurted out, “You tripped her… I mean, saved her”.
The boy stopped abruptly, locking his gaze on him, red eyes glowing brighter now. “You can see through the brume,” he whispered below his breath.
The pale young man looked him up and down, unimpressed. “Tiny for someone with gods-bloods. You humans really are a strange species.”
“Gods-blood?” the words sounded strange as Ralph said them aloud. Like his saliva had suddenly been turned to liquid tin.
“Put your hands down, if you really saw what I just did, trying to fight me won’t get you anywhere,” he pulled a hood over his head as he spoke. “Follow me; it won’t be safe here for much longer”.
Hesitantly he followed the now hooded figure for 15 minutes in silence, keeping a safe distance between them. He led them to a large glass high rise building that looked like it was ripped straight out of a science fiction novel.
“I’m not going in there,” he blurted out. Following him this far was a mistake, but he wasn’t about to make it worse by following the living ghost in front of him with fire in his eyes into an enclosed area.
“Relax kid,” he said calmly. “You have gods-blood in you. I couldn’t kill you if I tried.”
He was scared senseless but the young man had peeked his interest. Against his better judgment, he followed. The lobby of the apartment building was gleaming with polished furniture. Large gold lined sofas, that looked like they had never been used, were positioned in-between large vases with intricate designs. A wooden table larger than any he had ever seen sat in the middle of the entrance and was shining as the light reflected off its polished surface. As they entered the elevator, the pale young man pressed numbers 11 and 44 on the floor pad simultaneously. Both numbers flashed red three times then the entire number pad of 55 floor numbers lit up bright blue. The elevator shot up with surprising speed causing him to grab a hold of the hand rail and within seconds the elevator stopped and the door slid open silently.
The two of them walked out to an outdoor patio overlooking the city. From the ledge he could see the city: large, and full of lights, sprawled out below him. Off in the distance he could see the many monuments of the city, they looked like toys strategically positioned on a game board. Streets seemed like tiny pathways covered in cars that looked like loud, exhaust-producing ants. The view had distracted him – taken him by surprise. He was peering down at the buildings below him, like they were sitting on a cloud. No building could have this view, it was impossible.
“Don’t fall over,” the familiar voice said from behind, as if reading his mind. “If you do, there no guarantee that even I could save you.”
“What is this place?”
“Don’t worry about it,” the pale young man said nonchalantly. He pointed his index finger at a charred fire pit sitting a few feet away. He mimicked shooting a gun, using his thumb as the hammer. It would have looked awkward by itself, but out of nowhere the pit came to life, burning bright with deep orange fire.
“How did you do that?”
“Dunno, I just do it”. He made his way over and sat down on a nearby chair next to the fire. His skin looked whiter than usual as the fire roared next to him. “Go ahead, ask away. I know you’ve been itching to ask since you saw me.”
Again, he showed an eerie ability to know what he was thinking. “Your skin, why is it so white? And your eyes, the fire in them I mean.”
“All side effects of my condition, regrettably,” he said with a flourish of his hands. “Gods-blood can be a tricky thing.”
There it was again. “‘Gods-blood.’ You said that before, back at the alley.”
“This is your first time, meeting a god-ling isn’t it?” he said with a smile. “Gods-blood is what allows you to see through the brume. It’s why you can see me in my true form. Most likely, one of your decedents was a god-ling.”
“The brume: that’s what we god-lings call it. It’s what keeps normal humans from seeing us for what we really are.”
“What do you mean, who you really are?”
“When you see me, you see the real me. To the average human on the street, I would look no different than any other teenager.”
The young man stood up and whistled. From somewhere behind him, a large dog trotted into view. It looked more like a large black wolf than a dog. It also had fire flickering in its eyes, his more fierce than his owners.
“This is Ulva. Look at her and tell me what you see.”
“It means wolf,” he responded.
Ralph looked straight into the beast’s intense eyes. He felt his body grow colder and colder as the beast’s gaze cut through him. Images of death and memories of people he had never meet flashed through his mind like a strike of lightning: a kid being murdered in a drive-by shooting, an old woman being mugged, a plane crashing into a ball of fire. He felt his head pound as the memories intensified, until he couldn’t take it anymore and fell to a knee.
“I saw… death”
The pale young man nodded his head slowly as he tussled the beast’s large ears. “Not exactly,” he said. “Ulva here is a Hellhound. She can see things before they happen, death in particular. What you saw were possible outcomes.”
“A Hellhound?” he responded between rescinding head throbs. “You mean those things you read bout in those Greek myths?”
“More or less,” he responded, “The myths are hit or miss but the Hellhounds they got pretty much right.”
The boy suddenly broke out in laughter. Ralph had no idea why, maybe it was the subsiding throbbing of his head, but everything he had seen or heard felt like one big elaborate joke. “Hellhounds, premonitions of death…. Am I really supposed to believe all that?”
“My name is Wiley. I’m the son of Satan,” The pale boy just stared at him blankly. “And you’re free to believe whatever you want to believe, Ralph Mason.”
“How do you –“
“I know a lot of things, Ralph.”
The two of them sat in awkward silence for what seemed like forever as his words filled the balcony like a thick cloud. Ralph had so many thoughts running through his head. Was he serious about being the son of the devil? Where did he come from? How did he stop that accident from happening? But none of them seemed important really. Not now. Only one question nagged at him. Only one question seemed like it was worth asking.
“I’m not gonna say I believe you,” Ralph said, “But if what you say is true, about being the son of Satan and all, then why did you help that lady?”
Wiley raised an eyebrow, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, if you’re the son of Satan that means you’re a demon right?”
“Half, I suppose, yes”.
“Then why aren’t you helping him? Shouldn’t you have wanted that lady dead? Shouldn’t you be walking through the streets wrecking havoc?”
Wiley stood up and paced around the balcony. After a few minutes he settled back into his seat. “That man? The one driving the car I mean, he was drunk. He’d been drinking since noon, and he was going to go home and put his fist in his wife’s mouth because she didn’t make his pot roast soft enough. So you tell me, who deserved to die today: a mother trying to get through a tough day with a sick baby, or a drunken wife beater?”
Ralph sat, soaking in every word that came out Wiley’s mouth. “So what, you’re like some good samaritan, going around saving lives?”
“That’s one way of looking at it, I guess. I don’t really look for lives to save. With Ulva here, I kind of happen across them. Death is a tricky thing. It’s a debt that has to be paid. My father is… ignorant to the right and wrong of death. To him, everyone dies. I’ve spent time in Hell. I’ve seen undeserving souls taken too soon, while the vilest people live to see another day. Death is a debt. It has to be paid. I just try to make sure it’s the right person paying it.”
“Doesn’t it make your dad… Satan… mad?” Ralph said, words spilling out if his mouth awkwardly.
“Yeah, it does. But you know what? I’m not him. I’ve lived long enough to know that before you’ll ever accomplish anything worthwhile, you first have to figure out the type of person you are, who you want to be. At the end of the day, you’re not going to be good to anyone unless you’re comfortable with yourself. As you said, I’m a demon. I didn’t choose it and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But if I have to live this life, I’m going to do it on my own terms.”
Wiley’s words cut right to the core of him.
“How did you figure out who you wanted to be?” Ralph asked.
“Trial and error mostly,” Wiley walked to the balcony taking a big gulp of the crisp evening air before returning to his seat. “There’s no rulebook to life, no right or wrong way to do it. You just have to live your life the way you want to live it. You have to do the things that make you happy”.
Ralph sat, thinking. He thought about all the things he did because other people told him to. He thought about the one thing that brought him the most joy and how he kept it hidden from the world. He thought about how long he’d felt lost, confused, awkward, out of place. He thought about how unhappy he was.
“There’s a reason you and I bumped into each other,” Wiley said, snapping Ralph out of his trance, “The universe has a funny sense of humor that way.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, saving lives doesn’t always come in the form of a missed car accident.”
Ralph didn’t quite understand what he meant by that.
“Come on, it’s getting late,” Wiley said, “and I’ve got work to do.”
The two of them walked back to the elevator together. Ralph stepped in, noticing Wiley’s absence next to him.
“This is where we go our separate ways,” Wiley said. His eyes flared bright red but only for an instant. “Press 1, it’ll take you to the lobby.”
“Will we ever see each other again?” Ralph turned his gaze pressing 1 on the elevator number pad. When he looked up Wiley was gone. As the elevator doors began to close, the very spot Wiley had been standing in looked like it had been empty the entire time.
On the lobby floor, he walked out of the front door, heading towards the nearest metro stop. As he made the short metro ride home he replayed the entire conversation with the demon in his head. He had been so focused on it, so in his head, that he hadn’t realized he had walked all the way to his front door.
He walked through the door into the large brownstone house, ignoring the wooden staircase leading to the bedrooms located upstairs, past the expensive paintings adorning the walls and the ornate abstract sculptures placed in the empty spaces of the homes first floor he had always hated, straight through the back screen door connecting the kitchen to the small garden that doubled as a back yard. He sat in silence, staring at the red brick wall of the home he had stared at so many times before, letting everything that had happened to him that day process. Wiley’s words swirled through his head like a bingo ball being spun through the small metal ball cage.
As he sat and thought to himself, in his mind, the red brick wall he had stared at so many times before had become something else, something familiar – It became a canvas. On it he saw a vast seascape where epic battles were being fought between monsters and men. He saw a wide open space, showing planets and black holes both beautiful and devoid. He saw a dense green jungle hiding secrets from the world. He saw a sign. He saw an escape. He saw a challenge. He saw a risk he had never dared to take before. He saw the first step to figuring out the type of person he wanted to be. He saw a mirror capable of answering the many questions he had about himself.
He got up feeling a new sense of direction. He made his way back into the house, past the abstract sculptures, past the painting and up the wooden stairs. He grabbed the sketch pad from his backpack, the one he had used earlier in the coffee shop, and plopped down in the middle of the floor. He opened it onto the sketch of Wiley and he suddenly understood what Wiley had meant. “Saving lives doesn’t always come in the form of a missed car accident,” he mouthed silently.
Within seconds he was lost within himself, letting his imagination pour out of him onto the page. He was doing the one thing he enjoyed the most… the one thing that made him happy. And to him, in that moment, it was the only thing that mattered.