“I’m bored,” said Nicki, which was always a bad sign.
I looked up from the book I’d buried my head in hours ago. My feet were tucked beneath me in Father’s easy chair, which I’d claimed while he worked in his office. Mother hadn’t made us get dressed, so I was still in my polka-dot pajamas and a pair of fuzzy socks, though it was three in the afternoon; Nicki wore a clashing ensemble of striped pajama pants, a flowery t-shirt, and an oversized flannel. Her white-blonde hair was pulled back into four or five messy pigtails, and she was staring out the window at the pouring rain.
“I’m bored,” she announced again. “Dina, I want to do something.”
This was a doubly bad sign. I’d come close to finishing this book, and then I’d planned to sneak up to Father’s study and find another one. Rainy days like this, when Mother and Father were working and Nicki and I didn’t have school, when the only sound was water driving onto the roof and occasional distant thunder, were my quiet times to lose myself in reading. Nicki’s incessant desire to do things wasn’t conducive to that reality.
“Did you hear me, Dina?” Nicki was still staring out the window.
“We’ve been shut in the house for more than a day. I haven’t made a single new friend and I can’t even check up on the anthills outside. We’ve got to do something.”
Last time she’d made this demand, and I’d been foolish enough to go along with it, we’d ended up stuck on the roof of Father’s office building. The time before that we’d barely escaped a swarm of angered geese. Both instances had left Nicki exhilarated and me entirely mute until I’d spent several hours in bed recovering. Even with us trapped in the house, I had no idea what kind of trouble Nicki could get us into.
But Nicki was unstoppable, once she got started with something. I slid my felt bookmark carefully into the book. “What did you have in mind?”
She turned from the window, finally, and met my eyes. Her mouth was stretched wide into a grin that showed off her bright orange-and-black braces. “I think we should summon a demon.”
This was a triply bad sign, and I could feel myself - despite all rationality, despite all prior experience - growing excited. I shifted to sit forward, my socked feet dangling over the side of the easy chair, not touching the carpet. “A demon? How do you do that?”
“I learned the trick from Michael More,” she said. “He gave me the instructions in exchange for a pudding cup and half my sandwich at lunch.”
Nicki had a bad habit of trading in her lunches for information. Mother had been trying to get her to stop for years now, as she continued to come home hungry from school, but nothing stopped Nicki. She raided the pantry when Mother wasn’t looking, bringing sleeves of crackers and globs of peanut butter and big raw carrots up to our room like treasure hoards. I’d help her avoid detection against my better judgment. Then she’d spread the feast out on our bed and offer me some, and tell me, in a conspiratorial whisper, what new secrets she’d gotten for her thermos soup this morning.
“A demon,” I said, testing out the word. I’d never seen a demon before. “What would we do with it?”
“Oh, it all depends on what kind we get.” Her eyes sparkled. “Will you really do it, Dina? Will you help me?”
“It sounds dangerous,” I hedged.
Her grin widened. I’d always thought Nicki’s grin was too wide for her face; it looked almost frightening along with the neon braces. I’d always thought she looked constantly on the verge of causing trouble. “It is.”
Nicki’s ideas were always bad, but that was what you signed up for, having a twin sister. I slid out of the chair and onto my feet. I was grinning too. “Let’s do it.”
She dragged me by the hand upstairs to our room. At first I thought she was going to try to summon the demon on our bed, and I’d have objected on the grounds of burning the sheets, but she just rummaged around under the mattress until she’d pulled out a thin, black-bound book, its edges scribbled over with red marker.
“This is where I wrote it down when I got home,” she said. “Michael More made me memorize it because he said something awful happens if you write it down, but I think he was making that up.”
“So,” I said, growing eager, “what does it say?”
She examined her own untidy scrawl. “First we have to draw a pentagram.”
“What’s a pentagram?”
“It’s probably like a pentagon, right?”
I tapped my chin. “Where do we draw it? On the floor?”
“I thought we’d do it in the basement.”
Venturing down into the basement - a dark and uncarpeted space crammed with junk and creaking with pipes - sounded like the worst way of preparing to meet a demon. But, then again, it would protect the carpets.
“All right,” I said. “What next?”
“Then we have to light three candles.” Nicki opened the drawer by her nightstand, pulling out a clump of putty. “There are some birthday candles in the silverware drawer left over from Father’s birthday. We can stick them in this.”
We crept back down to the kitchen, careful not to disturb Mother and Father in their offices; I was already devising excuses for what we could say we needed the candles for, if we were caught. My excuse-making was my greatest asset on missions like these. I’d managed to get us out of trouble in both the office-building-roof and the goose-chase incidents. Though I firmly maintained even now that as far as the goose-chase incident went, we’d really been the victims.
Once we’d pulled three of the pink-and-green wax candles from their wrapping, we snuck downstairs. The boiler groaned and I tried not to shiver.
“There’s chalk around here somewhere,” Nicki whispered. “I’ll go and find it. You clear out a space on the floor.”
This was really a terrible idea, I thought as I shoved teetering boxes to the side. Honestly, what were we going to do if a demon appeared in our basement? What if the demon wasn’t contained by our pentagon? What if it demanded some sort of payment for coming? But this was how Nicki’s ideas always went. And despite every terrible situation we’d gotten ourselves into, we hadn’t died a single death yet.
“Here it is!” she called, and tripped over a closed box and into our circle, grinning. “Are you ready?”
She was careful in drawing her pentagon, measuring out the lines with a dusty old ruler she’d unearthed along with the pale white chalk. She examined the angles with a critical eye as though she’d done this a hundred times before.
“It’s got to look nice,” she told me. “If it doesn’t, the demons won’t come. That’s what Michael More said.”
When the pentagon was finished to her satisfaction, Nicki directed me to place the putty, the three candles sticking out of it, into its center. Then she pulled matches and a needle from her back pocket.
“Once we light the candles,” she said, “we each have to spill a drop of blood between them.”
“Won’t that ruin the putty?”
“I can get more when we’re back at school.” Nicki shrugged. “Denni Lark said she’d give me some of hers if I gave her a kiwi and a clementine.”
She lit the candles clumsily, going through three matches before they’d all been lit. Then she pricked her thumb and let a drop of blood fall onto the putty. I followed her; the prick barely hurt, but it felt ominous, watching the blood fall between the flickering candles. Hearing the pipes groan behind me, seeing the dark and dusty boxes loom up from all sides. Excitement and nerves swirled together in my gut.
Nicki sat back, cross-legged, and placed her hands on her knees. “Now sit like this and close your eyes.”
I did, and tried not to imagine that the noises of the pipes were growing louder, squealing and clanking like trapped ghosts. An afterimage of the three flames was burned onto my eyelids as I waited. My heart was beating hard.
“And now,” whispered Nicki, managing to sound both cocksure and enraptured at once, “we chant.”
“What do we chant?”
“The Latin evocation. Michael More was really specific about this part. It’s this: Venis Demonus Fromhellius.”
I was a little more well-read than Nicki, and I was almost sure that wasn’t Latin, but who was I to argue with Michael More?
“Venis Demonus Fromhellius,” we whispered in unison.
The pipes and the boiler really were getting louder. They must be. I couldn’t be imagining how noisy they’d grown, could I? And was I imagining the tiny chill that had just blown through our circle? Were the goose bumps rising on the back of my neck simply a reaction to my nerves?
“Nicki,” I whispered, “what now?”
“Don’t open your eyes,” she hissed.
The noise crescendoed in my ears, morphing into a roar. A real wind began to swirl around us, and I cracked one eye open to see the candles; they were still lit, but sputtering in the tiny but fierce gale. Melted wax wobbled at their wicks. The light they cast was brighter than the weak electric light in the ceiling, but it flickered and threw strange shadows on the floor. I shivered and squeezed both eyes shut again.
“Something’s coming,” Nicki said. “I can feel it. Can you feel it?”
I swallowed hard. “I think so…”
Then, like some sort of cosmic exhale, the noise around us died down. The wind petered out. And quite clearly, in the stillness that followed, I heard the buzzing ring of an old-fashioned telephone.
My eyes opened.
Nicki sat utterly frozen across from me. Her eyes were fixed on the three candles, which burned steadily now as the ringing sound continued. There was no phone down here; there wasn’t even a landline in our house anymore, not since Mother and Father had gotten cell phones. There was nowhere aboveground the noise could be coming from. I stared with Nicki, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
There was a tiny click, and then a growling, raspy voice reverberated up from the ground beneath us. “Is this supposed to be a pentagram?”
Nicki shot to her feet. Her hands clasped together like she was trying to restrain herself. Her grin looked like it was going to split her face in half. “Yes! Yes, it is!”
“Hold on, I’m coming.”
The candle flames swelled, and then they darkened. A black, oily mist was rising up from them; Nicki fell back and edged around the circle to be next to me, gripping my arm hard. I chewed on my lower lip as I gazed at the vision slowly solidifying in front of us. A formless cloud, at first, which gained definition in the shape of a head and shoulders, then long, spindly arms.
It was a man. A tall, pale man in a dark three-piece suit, his white hair slicked back and his eyes a pair of black, irisless pits. His face turned down to look at us, and his brows drew together.
“You two summoned me?” he rasped.
Nicki seemed entirely overcome with excitement. Her mouth worked hard for a moment, but no sound came out. She simply beamed up at the demon, eyes shining like glass caught in sunlight.
I spoke instead. My voice was strangely calm. “We did.”
He folded his arms. “For what purpose?”
I glanced at Nicki. This was the part I hadn’t prepared for. She’d said we could worry about it when the time came, but I had absolutely no business with a demon - it had been her idea.
“I don’t take soul payments from minors, if that’s what you’re looking for,” he said. “You’ve got to be eighteen to -”
“Monopoly,” Nicki squeaked.
The demon frowned and uncrossed his arms. “Excuse me?”
She’d gained her voice back. It had shot up a few octaves, but I was relieved to cede the stage to her, and she stepped in front of me. “Do you want to play Monopoly with us?”
He scratched his head, upsetting his perfectly-smooth hair slightly. “The - the board game?”
Nicki nodded vigorously.
“You summoned me here, from the depths of the underworld, so you could ask me to play Monopoly with you?”
“I’m bored.” Nicki’s voice was growing stronger again. “And you can’t play with only two people.
The demon glanced behind him, as if looking at something we couldn’t see. “Well, I suppose it couldn’t hurt. It’s so dreary around here on rainy days. Everything gets all wet when it’s supposed to be on fire.”
“It’s dry in here, and warm,” I said unthinkingly.
He smiled. His mouth had too many teeth, and they were all a little too sharp, but somehow it wasn’t particularly frightening.
“I’ll go get the board!” Nicki squealed, and then she was off up the stairs like a shot.
I rubbed the back of my neck. “Ah… sorry you can’t go upstairs. But we’re worried you’d singe the carpet up there.”
He nodded sagely. “Yes, that’s an occupational hazard of mine.”
It wasn’t long before Nicki’s footsteps were echoing on the stairs again. She tramped down with our old beaten-up Monopoly set held high over her head, and she threw it down in front of the candles and the demon. Then she stood by my side again and looped her arm through mine.
“If one of us wins,” she panted, “will you do some magic for us?”
He raised an eyebrow. “What kind of magic?”
“Will you make us a box of candy?”
I thought he was fighting to hold in a laugh, for a moment. “Sure, sure. And what do I get if I win?”
Nicki clapped her hands. “If you win, you get to come back here next time there’s a rainy day. For a rematch.”
The demon still didn’t have solid legs - his bottom half was shapeless, a shadowy cloud - but he dropped down as though seating himself on the floor, still smiling. When Nicki opened the box, he helped her unfold the board. He shuffled the chance and community chest cards with me. He laughed outright when Nicki announced she’d be the banker, since trusting a demon to handle our money was a bridge too far.
We stayed in the basement the rest of the afternoon.
This was what it was like having Nicki as a twin sister. I always ended up on top of a building or running from geese or lying belly-down on the floor of a creaking basement playing a board game with a surprisingly friendly demon. I never got to finish a single one of my books. And yet I went along with all her terrible ideas, because a few in there were jewels, and I knew if I just followed behind her when she dragged me out of Father’s easy chair, I’d find them.