It was a clear day, cold and blue, when the demons came to look at the property. Everyone in the office thought I had lost my ever-loving mind. I was doing the work of the devil, they said. I was helping them establish an empire of ill-repute, filled with drug dealers, prostitutes, murderers, pedophiles, and torturers, among other things. And demons were-well, they were demons. Creatures not to be trusted.
I waited, leather folio in hand, in front of the Aurora Theater. Three of them emerged from a rusty Chevy pick-up truck, which listed heavily to one side. They wore Hawaiian shirts and overalls. The shirts danced with movement and color; they mesmerized me. One was covered with handprints of every color imaginable. Eyes, the exact opposite color of the hands they were on, stared out of the palms. They looked all around and blinked intermittently.
Fan dancers covered one of the other shirts. Women and men of different ethnicities undulated to some unheard and strange rhythm. The last demon wore perhaps the most bizarre shirt of all. It was covered with roadways. People, humans with sad and sullen faces were throwing bears onto the roads. Seconds later, the offender would run back, looking chastised and hopeful all in the same moment as they picked up their bears.
The movement in the shirts made me dizzy. My colleagues and priest had warned me to never look a demon in the eye. It wasn’t clear exactly what would happen, but an undesirable and painful outcome was underscored. I had to, though, to keep myself from throwing up on their Jesus sandals.
The demons did not have horns. Nor was their skin red. Fire did not blaze in their eyes, and their countenance was not one of doom and despair.
The blinking-eyes shirt demon smiled when our gazes met.
Sweat drilled out of my skin, onto my forehead, and dripped from my armpits, despite the cold. It was true, you shouldn’t look at a demon. Not because they were hideous, and not because they gained power over you. It was because they were exquisite. Because the beauty of them could crush you.
“Thanks for meeting us. Call me Twelve. Please.” The blinking-eyes shirt demon held out his hand. If I wasn’t supposed to look at a demon, I certainly shouldn’t touch one. It happened automatically, though.
Our palms pressed together. Our fingers clamped down. The eyes on his shirt stopped roving and fixed on me, unblinking. Heat flushed through my hand, traveled up my arm and made my nerves sing.
Twelve, and all his sparkling eyes, winked at me. “We have that effect on people.”
Embarrassment licked through my face.
“This is Four.” He pointed to the demon with the fan dancer shirt. “And this is Leo.”
The demon with the bears on the road shirt waved. Unlike the other two, fine lines crinkled the corners of his eyes. He wore pince-nez glasses, and his overalls were permanently stained with the thick grime of dirt around the cuffs and at his knees. He smelled of rich earth, and smoke.
I nodded to Leo. It was almost a bow, again the gesture was automatic, as the handshake had been; as if my peripheral nervous system had been hard-coded millions of years ago, along with breathing, to perform these rites.
“Let’s have a look inside.” I gestured at the building, which might have gone through as many lives as Twelve had.
The Aurora had started out as a theater. The marquee still protruded over the main entrance. The skin of its underbelly sagged, and we could see past the insulation to its rusting skeleton.
The Aurora had also been temporary housing for combat veterans, a mental hospital, convalescent home, and tenement housing. It had had a glorious and brief revival as a mixed-use public planning experiment. When the city went bankrupt and the private backers pulled out, it sunk into this near irrevocable decay.
Four raised his eyebrows. “Are you sure?”
“Isn’t it what you’re here for?”
They all smiled.
Anxiety and fear, like silver fish, flitted through my bloodstream, and spoon-fed my cells nauseating amounts of the stuff. “I … must have misunderstood.” The words crawled out.
Twelve nodded. “It’s a normal thing to do.”
He meant the statement as an out, a way for me to save face, but it stung. No agency. No intelligence. No choice. That I would succumb to the hypnotic effect of sameness, normalcy – as if there was only a pattern to follow, and nothing else – was pathetic.
Leo touched my elbow just then. He didn’t feel the same as Twelve. Leo’s energy flashed through me, and consumed me instanteously. Images, as bright and vibrant as their eyes, exploded in my mind. So many. They crowded out my thoughts, all my memories, and my notions of who and what I was.
And then, just as quickly, he sucked them back, left me with a void. A freshly made footprint on the beach. The water crept at the edges first, and slowly filled the cavity.
I swayed on my feet.
The bears looked at me.
Leo’s smile closed a little. “Sorry about that. We understand the whole block is for sale.”
I looked around. Yes. We were at the Aurora Theater. “It is.” I turned and pointed to the other side of the street. “That block, too.”
They all three grinned. Twelve hugged Four. He clapped Leo on the back and shook his hand.
In the brilliance of their joy, my body felt vapor-light.
“We’ll take it,” Twelve said.
They hadn’t even stepped into the broken down theater. But wait, that was a routine thought. Predictable. I looked up and down the block, and up and down the other one, too. I tried to see the value in it. Maybe they liked broken things. “What do you want with two city blocks?”
Four reached out to me. His fingertips glided over my cheek, until he cupped my face in his hand. His touch was featherlight, full of sensuous undulations. It took every molecule of will I had to remain still.
The images on his shirt morphed from the dancers into the buildings all around us crumbling into themselves, to the concrete vanishing, to the earth being plowed into rich rows of dark brown. Finally, the image transformed into green fields. Full of life. Full of light.