hi, that’s a demon

I knew this recovery week had to end, but damn, did it really have to? Not that I don’t want to keep helping… you know, rescuing creatures and their potential prey, but damn, it was so nice to be safe and rested for 5 days in a row.

The Hawthornes are getting restless. Once the lingering effects of that venom wore off, they started their whole pacing, fiddling, researching routine. The Kellihers being here has helped. All they ever appear to want to do is play bridge and cook feasts. It’s the best. I love the Kellihers.

But of course, Saturday morning, Julian was already at the breakfast table when I came down at like 9 am to grab a snack before my nice long morning plan to lie in my bed watching cartoons on my iPad.

“Good morning,” he said. “You might want to get packed up.”

Which is Julian shorthand for I found something.

It was an article about a college track star who had to drop out. The article didn’t specify what was wrong with her, only that she was going home for “treatment,” which sounded potentially ominous, but not necessarily paranormal.

“What are we looking at?” Neal asked, still scrubbing shower water out of his hair.

“Annie Agan,” Julian began. “She’s 19, normal kid, on an athletic scholarship at an out of state school. Everything is normal, she’s doing well in her classes, she’s winning her races. And then —” He reached for his iPad, did some tapping and flipped it back around to show us.

It was an article about a geology field trip to a cave system that went wrong when the ground in one of the tunnels gave way and one of the students fell down into a previously undiscovered, apparently long-sealed part of the cave system. The student was down there for a full 6 hours before they were able to safely get her out.

“You think that was Annie,” Neal said.

“I do, yeah,” Julian and did a little more tapping. “Thank goodness for social media.”

It was all right there on her Insta — pictures of her and her friends, pictures of her running and stretching, pictures of her drinking milkshakes with captions about cheat meals, and then selfies of her with the climbers who pulled her out of the caves with a quippy caption about her time in the earth’s bowels.

“Shit,” Neal said to Annie’s instagram account. “Look at you, what did you pick up down there?”

There was only one post after being pulled out of the earth. It was a selfie, but she was almost entirely unrecognizable. She was skinny and pale, her hair stringy. There were enormous dark circles under her eyes. One of her teeth was chipped. The caption said something hollowly optimistic that basically amounted to when life gives you lemons make lemonade.

“Poor kid,” Neal said.

“Yeah,” Julian agreed. “But look at this.” He pulled up a TikTok, which has since been taken down. “This is her roommate’s account.”

It was a pretty basic dorm room setup. The girls were spread out between the lower bunk, the desk and the floor, books open and papers sprawled everywhere.

One of the girls said, “Are you filming this? Okay, do it again, watch: Annie, do you have any experience speaking German?”

Annie still looked pretty healthy. She was laughing. “None!”

“Are you sure?”

“On god, none,” Annie said.

The videographer started a popular TikTok song. “Okay, do it.”

“I can’t just do it like —”

Her friends talked over her, insisting she do it, and on camera Annie’s eyes flickered and rolled. She opened her mouth and a strange gargling came out of her.

“What the fuck?” I said.

And then Annie started singing along to the song, except she was singing, in a weirdly monotone drone, entirely in German.

“Now do Japanese,” said her friend and Annie’s eyelashes fluttered again and the droning became Japanese.

“Serbian,” said her other friend and a trail of drool feel out of Annie’s mouth onto her lap, to the squealing amusement of her friends, but the language changed again.

“Okay stop, stop,” her friend cried, giggling and Annie blinked and came out of it, wiping her mouth.

“Did it work? she asked. Her friends just laughed until the recording restarted.

“Check the comments,” Julian said.

A brief sample of the comments:

“I looked into it,” Julian said. “Her high school didn’t offer a German class, and her current college doesn’t offer Serbian. It’s possible there’s an explanation for this but —”

“Yeah, no I’m with you,” Neal interrupted. “When was that taken?”

“Six months ago,” Julian replied. “Last spring. She left school early, and hasn’t gone back this fall. But I’m not done. Look at this.”

It was a list of screen-shot social media posts from various platforms complaining about a smell like smoke and/or rotten eggs in their dorm building, about flickering lights and power outages, and a rat infestation.

“All from her dorm building mates, all from after she fell into the cave,” Julian said.

“How did you even find this girl?” Neal asked.

Julian held up his phone and pressed play on a voicemail.

Hi Julian, this is Father O’Brian. You asked me to alert you if a bishop approved any especially heinous exorcisms, and I can’t believe I’m calling you but there’s a girl in REDACTED TOWN I think you want to hear about.

Julian paused the voicemail.

“I got this Friday,” he said.

“Who’s Father O’Brian?” I asked.

“An old friend,” Neal replied. “We helped him with settle a bad haunting a few years ago. Rattled up his faith a bit, but it looks like he at least internalized something we told him.”

So I asked, “…is that what we’re dealing with? A haunting?” Because I’ve seen the movies, right? I’ve seen them, you’ve seen them. Like hi, that’s a demon.

“No,” Neal said. “A haunting that powerful… I mean, no one alive has seen anything like that. Far more likely she’s got a shimmer or something.”

And when I asked what a shimmer is?

“They’re parasites,” Julian said. “They give you incredible cognitive function, but unless they’re very carefully managed they wreak havoc on your system.”

“Parasitic adderoll,” Neal said.

Three hours later we were driving, which is a super slow turn around time for us, but no matter how restless the Hawthornes are, none of us wanted to leave the Kellihers. They’re just like… big, brawny, beams of sunshine.

“Goodness knows you’re welcome to come,” Neal said when we told them we were leaving.

Jessamine clapped his shoulder. “Nah, we should stay. I told Paul we’d head out to the Emporium when we were better. Be a little extra muscle while they’re trying to figure out long term arrangements for that lemniscate.”

“We’ll take you up on that someday, though,” Lodge added. “I miss hunting with a Hawthorne.”

Potentially Julian and Neal feel the same way about Lodge and Jessa that I do about Neal and Julian, because Neal was sort of glowing when Lodge said that. It must be a big-brother’s friends thing.

We’re maybe 6 hours out from our new case. Wish us luck.

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