It was Sunday. There should not have been a letter in the mailbox. That must be it, thought Asher. Figures it would come on a Sunday.
The early winter morning was dark and unnatural. The horizon boasted a unique sun scape: thinning strips of pitch and charcoal clouds, between which were roiling flows of molten, golden light. And the god-awful fog – its soupy mass penetrated every crack, crevice, and avenue, smothering the glow of streetlamps and seeping into the mind.
Now, why did Asher feel this oh-so-compelling necessity to sign up for the Mail Order Demon Hosted Exchange Program – each exchange one hundred percent consensual? The simple answer was dull and inane: he was bored. Stuck at a dead-end job, he felt the need for some blood-pumping excitement, some much-awaited adventure. He’d happened upon a small, nondescript flier – bland parchment, Times New Roman font – on the community announcements board at his favorite backwater used bookstore, detailing the service. Upon inquiring about the ad, the wizened bookseller scoffed, muttering, “You sure that’s not a prank, son? Kids these days…” Still, it spurred Asher’s curiosity: it was worth a shot, it seemed too outlandish to be a joke.
With swift strides, Asher jumped from his crumbling front steps – they were an unsightly blemish on his otherwise cute cottage property – and proceeded to the mailbox. His house was pretty sweet, an ocean-front property, but most souls weren’t hearty enough to brave the bracing crosswinds and unpredictable – yet mostly rainy – Aran Isles weather.
Asher ripped open the envelope while slamming the storm door shut with a fierce kick. Odd, though, thought Asher, No postage, no return address, nothing. Though I suppose if they wrote “Return to Hell” on the back, the postman might be a tad suspicious. Asher proceeded to rip open the envelope, careless of the precise, emerald, calligraphic scrawl noting his name and address.
The stationery inside was blank.
“What the f—”
With a loud crack, the letter burst into flames and emitted a sparkling spray of red fireworks. Asher rushed to the farmhouse sink, loading a cup of water to quell the flames, and saw it for the first time: an eagle with the face of a leopard, perched right there on his kitchen table.
“Hey, I’m Sitri,” it said.
Not taken aback enough to risk rudeness, Asher responded. “Uh… hi. I’m Asher.” He gulped, hesitant, and proceeded with, “You must be… the demon I ordered?”
“Sure am!” said Sitri.
“Are you male or… female… or what?
“You don’t look anything like I thought you would.”
Sitri raised his eyebrows, or what looked to Asher like eyebrows – they could have just been spots on Sitri’s face from his coat pattern. He seemed taken aback. “Well, what did you expect me to look like? A little red dude with a pitchfork and horns?”
Asher grimaced. “Well, yeah, kind of, actually…”
“That’s really a design flaw on the part of you humans,” sighed Sitri, shaking his head. “Your literature and Biblical depictions of Hell are so boring, so base, so… non referential.”
“So,” continued Asher, “Is this the only form you take? Just a leopard head plopped onto the body of some bird?”
“Sorry, a leopard head plopped onto an eagle.”
Sitri raised a feather-digit of his wing just as one would a finger, waggling it in mock disappointment. “Oh no, my friend. At the request of the summoner – in this case you – I can also, at no extra charge, assume the form of a beautiful man.”
Asher flushed briefly, praying that Sitri didn’t notice. He stood a little straighter in mock concentration. “Oh… yeah?”
“Do I detect a hint of interest?” Sitri smiled a wide and wry grin, beady black eyes shining. “You’d like me to assume that form, wouldn’t you?”
Crap. Asher had stumbled right into Sitri’s trap.
Sitri emitted what seemed to Asher like a characteristic chortle, letting his laughter fade as he said, “It’s okay, man. It’s not like men being attracted to men is a cardinal sin or anything.”
A wave of palpable relief washed over Asher. He loosened his stature a bit as, with another resounding crack, Sitri did just that: he transformed into a figure Asher could only describe as Adonic – that is, if Adonis had been a survivor of grunge culture, boasted a smattering of assorted facial piercings, and had two sleeves of mythological tattoos.
“Well, now that’s that settled,” said Sitri, brushing some residual feathers off his clothes, “I must confess, I’m pleased I don’t have to service some cocky jerk this time. I was afraid I was going to get stuck with another dude bro or a superior academic type. I can’t stand those.”
Asher raised his pierced eyebrow, half-bemused and fueled by his own unerring curiosity. “I must say,” he laughed, dimples widening, “You’re very – what’s the word – conversational. For a demon, anyway.”
Sitri rotated a wrist while he considered Asher. “Others have described me as more down-to-earth than the hell-bent hotheads we have managing some of our ranks. Just my personality, I guess. If you come off easygoing, it’s more than likely you’ll get what you want.”
“Okay, enough small talk,” urged Asher, excited, “So what do you wanna do?”
Sitri grinned and said, “Honestly? I just want to go to the beach.”
Asher’s mouth dropped open. “The beach?”
“What the hell, dude? I was signing up for some amazing stuff here, and all you want to do is go to the beach?” Asher’s ears reddened with exasperation. What an utter waste of my time.
Sitri, miming appeasement with his palms open, said, “Well sheesh, Asher. I reign over eleven legions of demons in the Underworld. I could use some time off once in a while. No, while others usually sign up for this gig to cook up some mayhem or plain ol’ screw around, I sign up to get away from my duties. You know, a vacation.”
“Also, you don’t really have a choice, Asher,” Sitri admonished. “You signed up for this, and now you have to deal. This isn’t some Faustian ‘deal with the devil’ nonsense; you have to do what I want. Within reason. The beach is reasonable.”
“Sitri, you’re already a bummer.”
“Well, what did you have in mind?”
“I dunno. Some Underworldly chaos would have been nice.”
“Alas, I must disappoint you,” Sitri said with a twinkle in his eye. “Shall we get on then?”
Asher waved him off. “Sure, sure. Let’s go. I’m assuming you’ll want to go to a tropical or Mediterranean beach? Perhaps in Nice or Sorrento? What about Malta or the Bahamas?”
Sitri chuckled, barely able to contain a guffaw. “Oh no, oh no, nothing like that! We don’t have to go halfway around the world.”
“Something local would be nice. I’m quite satisfied with adventuring nearby. Remember what I said, I want a quiet outing, nothing too extravagant.”
“Asher, look, I’ve traveled to all those locales and more. I just want to relax, okay?”
“But Sitri, you realize we’re on Inis Mór, right? The Aran Islands? We’re not exactly in the tropics.”
“Let’s go anyway!”
“Fine.” Once again, figures. I get the most boring demon ever… Asher stole a glance at Sitri while the other inspected his nails, filed to square perfection. Well, maybe not entirely unexciting. “Well, you ready to go?”
Sitri gestured to his now-human shape. “Since I approximate the form of a human, I suppose I could walk out and about with you. However, I’m weary from travel, and if I’m going to be honest, I was just on a 24-hour shift, so would you mind if…”
“If what?” But Asher had a feeling he knew where this was going.
“If we travel together. In your body?”
Asher laughed to hide his nerves. “That’s a cute way of asking permission to possess me.”
Sitri shot him a look of disapproval. “Asher, I take this arrangement very seriously. I must ask your consent, and obtain permission.”
“I don’t know… what does it feel like?”
“Why don’t you see for yourself? I can’t tell you what possession feels like on your end, only mine.”
“We can try something else if you don’t like it.”
“Uhmm,” Asher repeated, then conceded. “Okay, but only for like, a minute.”
With a snap of his thumb and forefinger, Sitri vanished from Asher’s sightline, a thin trail of white smoke left in his wake.
“Where did he—”
I’m in here.
Asher jumped, spooked. Goosebumps ran down every inch of his exposed skin, and with a shudder he realized Sitri now shared his headspace. Asher’s expectations had been higher than this: he hadn’t felt a thing during the possession.
Hey, I heard that. I can hear everything you’re thinking, Sitri said, matter-of-fact. Well, not hear exactly. Intuit is perhaps the right turn-of-phrase.
I don’t know that I can do this, if you’re in my mind, as well. The body I got on board with. This is too intrusive.
Come on, Asher, live a little. It’s just until we get to the beach.
I don’t know…
I can feel your palms sweating, sheesh. I can’t take over your motor skills or senses or brain or anything like that—I just feel them, the sensations. Can you feel me?
Not strictly speaking, not physically. I feel like I’m being followed, but it’s uncanny – and uncomfortable.
Okay, he thought, with a mental sigh, the more time we suck up with this internal dialogue, the longer it’ll take to get to the beach. Let’s go.
In his mind’s eye Asher felt Sitri flash a pitying, amused smile. Off we go then. Let’s get this vacation started.
“You know, Asher, you really don’t appreciate the simpler things in life.”
“Like freezing your ass off on an Irish beach.”
“Come on,” Sitri pleaded, “This is the whole reason I came. All I wanted was to go to the beach, at least let me enjoy it for a while, huh?”
Asher, bound in two enormous cable-knit sweaters and a hurricane-proof fisherman’s jacket, sat shivering on the sand, with a drop of frozen mucus hanging from his nose. He glared at Sitri. Sitri, lounging directly on the hard-packed damp sand, wore nothing but a pair of sleek black Ray Bans, borrowed from Asher.
“Dude, how are you not freezing your ass off?”
“Asher, I’m just enjoying the balmy breeze. Not one cloud rolling in,” said Sitri pleasantly.
Asher steeled his glare further, his eyes almost shut against the bone-chilling wind. In a stony voice, he growled, “It’s 6 degrees.”
“Fahrenheit?” Sitri tipped up his sunglasses to eye Asher.
“Oh, that’s fine then.”
“Sitri, you literally live and work in hell. As in hot as hell. How are you not freezing? I live here and I’m positively chilled.”
“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. Higher threshold of tolerance for extreme temperatures I guess. Perks of being a demon.”
Asher snorted. “Well, when you’re done sunbathing, can we please get some tea or something? It’s blistering out here and if I listen closely enough, I think I can hear my bones chattering.”
“You say you need to get warm?”
“That’s what I’ve been saying for the past hour—”
Sitri suddenly propped himself up, brushed residual flakes of sand from his hands, and wrapped his arm across Asher’s shoulder. Asher barely noticed Sitri’s eyes twinkling, too busy feeling his own eyes bulge: his face was an inch from Sitri’s, their noses almost touching.
Asher’s heart pounded heavily and he felt suddenly, wickedly warm.
“How’s this?” Sitri grinned. “As you can probably guess, I run pretty hot.”
“I’m not making you feel uncomfortable, am I?”
Sitri winked and hopped back to his folded up towel, tying it around his waist. “Come on, let’s go and get you your tea.”
“Thank Jesus,” Asher said, getting to his feet, “Who would have thought it would take a demon from the Underworld to show me how to appreciate the smaller things in life, eh?”
“Haha, oh yeah? I didn’t know I taught you anything.”
Asher frowned. “Oh no, you have!”
Sitri placed his hands on his hips, and asked, “And what’s that, pray tell? To appreciate small ventures like going to the beach? Even when you’re cold and bitter?”
“No…” Asher puckered his lips, amused and embarrassed with himself and the following admission: “To appreciate attractive demons.”
“Oh ho ho, you find me attractive, do you?”
“I thought that much was obvious, wasn’t it?”
Sitri smiled sweetly. “Well, yes of course.” He paused and then, “You know what we should do next, right?”
“Oh god, what?” Asher’s face half-fell, but he couldn’t suppress a smirk spreading at the edges of his mouth.
Sitri’s mouth split into a huge grin, not unlike, Asher thought, Dr. Seuss’ the Grinch, wickedly devilish. He clapped his hands together and pronounced, “Let’s go mini-golfing!”