The sun was setting, and up and down the street, I could see Christmas lights flicker on and blow-up snowmen fill with air. It was supposed to be festive, but I found it ominous, the snowmen especially. I’d seen demons that looked almost exactly like them, and now anything white and puffy automatically put me on guard. My breath billowed in front of me, and I pulled up the collar of my shearling-lined jacket, accidentally tugging it too close to my nose. I stifled a gag and immediately folded it back down.
The jacket was killer. It was pale-peach suede, had a ’70s Foxy Brown cut, and was about the warmest thing I owned. I’d found it at a thrift store the night before, and it was a serious score except it was dry-clean only. I thought I could get away with wearing it without spending more to have it cleaned than it actually cost, but nope. Breathe too deeply and I definitely got a whiff of weed, BO, and a third note I couldn’t identify. Maybe canned corn? I tried breathing through my mouth.
Cassandra wasn’t wearing a coat. Of course. Even in December. She sat next to me on the wooden bench, in just one of her brother’s hoodies over a flannel, her hair pulled back into a ponytail and anchored with a plain old rubber band. Cassandra doesn’t worry about split ends. She was gnawing on her thumbnail, making really gross sounds that were at odds with her I-sell-detox-tea-on-my-Instagram kind of beauty. Her right leg bounced at 180 bpm, and she spit a piece of nail onto the ground.
There were only three kids left on the playground, all bundled up like little marshmallows. Their shouts echoed off the school’s brick walls, and the swings made a metallic creak in the wind. The kids were taking turns throwing a red rubber ball at a basketball hoop, and one of the boys hurled the ball at the girl. She caught it and immediately turned and drop-kicked the ball away from him, sending it flying out into the playground. I stifled an urge to cheer her on.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I swear it’s here,” Cassandra said. “It’s just weird that it’s waiting so long.”
Cassandra was right. It was here. I could tell by the sadness that tickled the edges of my mind, and the way I shivered more from disgust than the cold every time the air moved around me. It was the reason Cassandra was so nervous, even though we were about to do something that, in the past month, had become as routine to us as going to school or not doing homework. We’d been in its presence for a while now, and exposure to a Negative demon always brings nerves and despair. Even to Sitters.
On the basketball court, one of the little boys was on the ground crying, while the little girl stood over him doing some sort of dance and kicking at his shins, her dangling mittens giving her the appearance of having four hands. I was trying to decide whether I was still on her side when Cassandra jumped up and started running across the playground. I was right behind her, my eyes straining in the crepuscular light, to make out what she saw.
There. By the monkey bars. A Shimmer. Barely visible, but I saw it nonetheless, like a glitch in reality. I detoured to the basketball court and held up my hands, palms facing the kids. “Mnemokinesis!” I shouted at them. They stopped fighting and turned to look at me with blank stares, arms hanging limply at their sides. Cass and I now had five minutes to do what we needed to do before the spell wore off and the kids would remember everything they saw.
Except Cassandra had stopped, and she was bent over, staring at the ground. I caught up to her, my heart pounding. “Cass! Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
She looked up at me and smiled. Her pupils were huge, which made her dark eyes look like deep black holes. Her expression was peaceful. More than peaceful--euphoric. “Esme,” she said, her voice an excited hush. “Have you ever noticed there’s glitter in the concrete? Look at how it sparkles.” She reached down and ran a hand over the dirty ground. “We are literally walking on rainbows. A million tiny rainbows.”
“Are you serious?” I looked away from her as something flickered in the corner of my eye. Now that we were stationary, the Shimmer thought it was stalking us, and not the other way around. I looked back at Cassandra, and her expression shifted in a split second, like she’d just been snapped by a rubber band. She gave her head a quick shake and broke into a run again, jumping a merry-go-round in two strides. She collided with something midair and went pixelated as she crashed to the ground. Shoot. The Shimmer was on top of Cassandra, and her limbs were going in and out of focus as she thrashed. My breath caught in my throat as the Shimmer surrounded her head, lifting it like it was about to smash her skull against the teeter-totter.
I held out my palm and wedged my powers between Cassandra and the ground so the Shimmer was just pounding her into the air. The sensation disoriented the Shimmer enough that it loosened its grip for a second, and a second was all Cassandra needed to wrench free. She rolled away and pushed herself up to her knees, her palms held out in front of her. Instantly, the Shimmer erupted in a blaze. With it outlined in flames, I could see that it was as big as at least two jungle gyms. It let out a piercing hiss, and I clamped my hands over my ears.
Her fire bathed Cassandra in flickering orange light for an instant. Just as quickly as the flames appeared, they were out again. She’d put them out. She had one palm extended and was gripping something tightly in her other fist. She raised it, but in a split second the Shimmer swung and connected with her, knocking her through the air. I winced as she smacked against the monkey bars and she fell to the ground in a heap.
“Cassandra!” I yelled. “What are you doing?”
She was back up in no time, her fist raised again, and now I could see what she was holding: a rope I didn’t know she’d had. She unfurled a length of it behind her and started to swing it over her head. I was so confused that I stopped for a second. Was she trying to lasso this thing?
“Pin it!” she yelled back at me. “Don’t let it go!”
I glanced up. The Portal was here, swirling over the playground like a curdled latte, which meant we only had a few seconds to flush the Shimmer before the Portal closed again. Pinning the Shimmer and not letting it go was not part of the plan. “What?” I screamed back, but before I could do anything, Cassandra had swung the lasso. Only, instead of being pinned, the Shimmer caught the rope and gave it a hard yank, pulling Cass off her feet and toward it.
“What are you waiting for?” I screamed. “Torch it!” That was how we usually did this: she set something on fire, which disabled it just long enough for me to grab it and flush it into oblivion. But she was over there playing tug-of-war like we were at a barbecue, and the Shimmer seemed to be having a grand old time.
I glanced up. The Portal was already starting to shrink, and Cassandra was still cowgirling. I had to act. I held up a hand and took hold of the demon, then focused my energy and gave it the biggest, hardest yank I’ve ever given anything. And, crap, it weighed as much as a baby elephant. Who’d been snacking on Kälteen bars. I held out my other palm, as this was a two-powered-hands job. Cassandra was yelling something at me, but I couldn’t make it out. I sucked a breath in through my nose, and yanked.
I felt the Shimmer’s energy course through me. It was hot and angry and still writhing in pain, and I didn’t care one bit. I started to swing it around in a circle, gathering speed. With each swing, I grew more powerful and it got lighter. I looked back at the Portal, still burbling above us, and took aim. With a final swing, I let go of the Shimmer. It hurtled toward the swirl and sailed right through the middle. As it always did, the Portal flushed, a sound that never failed to send a rush through my body, from my eyebrows down to the tips of my toes.
Then I turned to Cassandra. “What the crap was that? Did you want it to stick around and hang out?” She wouldn’t meet my eyes as she stood there, dirty from the scuffle and trying to catch her breath. “And that whole walking-on-rainbows thing? When did you become a flower child?”
Her eyes locked on mine. “What are you talking about?” she said. She seemed genuinely confused, but I was not going to let her put me on the defensive.
“You were wasting all sorts of time out there!” I snapped. “And you got distracted by the concrete! Of all things.”
She was coiling the rope back up. “I just wanted to do it a bit differently this time.”
“And you didn’t think that this was something you should tell me?”
“It’s no big deal,” she said.
“Yes, it is, Cassandra,” I said. “It could have gotten loose. What were you trying to do, anyway? Tie it up?”
She turned and started to walk away from me. “I wanted to interrogate it,” she said. Which made such little sense that I needed her to repeat it.
“You wanted to do what to it?”
“Interrogate it,” she said. “You know, ask it some questions.”
I still didn’t get it. “I know what interrogate means, Cassandra,” I said. “But it’s a Shimmer. It doesn’t even have a mouth.” We passed a trash can and she tossed the rope in it. It landed on a bag of dog poop and a Wendy’s box. A bigger question hit me, and I stopped. “Wait, you wanted to talk to it?”
I stared at the back of her head as she kept walking. She reached up to redo her ponytail as she nodded, and I winced when she ripped the rubber band out of her hair, taking several strands with it. “What did you think it would say?” I asked, catching up to her. But she picked up her pace and I could tell she was starting to get annoyed with me.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I thought maybe we could learn something. Let’s drop it, okay? I won’t do it again.” Then she said something that really blew my mind. “I’m sorry.”
Wow. I had to play my cards right with this one. What she had just done was weird, there was no doubt about it, but it was also clear that she didn’t want to discuss it. She so seriously didn’t want to talk about it that she’d even apologized, which she never did. I wasn’t going to get anything more out of her, so sure, I’d drop it. For now, at least. It was hard to tell when Cassandra was being weird and when she was just being Cassandra. I did know that she kept her word, though, so if she said she wouldn’t do something again, she wouldn’t. But interrogate a demon? Maybe she’d been watching too many cop shows? “What about the sidewalk rainbows, though?” I asked, figuring that was at least a different subject.
“Huh?” she asked, looking over at me like I was the one not making any sense.
“Do you not remember that? Your pupils were huge. It looked like you were on a different planet.” Something flickered across her face, too fast for me to decipher it.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, looking away from me and down the street. “I got really light-headed there for a minute. I didn’t really eat anything today.”
“Oh,” I said. “You should eat lunch. And breakfast.” She nodded. “Something with protein, like yogurt, or an egg . . .” Cassandra smirked.
“What’d you have for breakfast today?” she asked. I knew exactly what I’d had for breakfast: six Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and a venti iced coffee.
“Irrelevant,” I said, “as I’m not the one who had a . . .” I wasn’t sure what to call what had just happened to Cassandra. “Tripping balls” seemed most apt. “Episode,” I said finally. “In the middle of a Return. It did not seem like you were okay.”
“Thank you for your concern, Nutritionist Esme,” she said, reaching out to squeeze my shoulder. “I will make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Before either of us could say anything else about the subject, my phone started ringing. An incoming call from Jim Halpert, which is how I had Brian Davis--Cassandra’s and my Counsel, and also my dad’s best friend, hence the code name--saved in my phone. Brian always called me because he knew that Cassandra’s phone was usually broken, missing, or dead, and sometimes all three.
I answered and put him on speaker so Cassandra could hear too. “Hey,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Where are you?” he asked, his voice sounding more clipped and businesslike than usual.
“At the playground by Woodland Elementary,” I answered. “We just Returned a Shimmer.”
“Stay there,” he said. “I’m coming to get you.”
“It went well!” Cassandra called out. “Thanks for asking.” But Brian had already hung up.
“What do you think this is gonna be about?” I asked her.
She shrugged. “Something to do with his balls, probably.”
I nodded. She was probably right. Brian’s true passion was interior design, and he had a flair for mixing boho patterns and textiles with mid-century silhouettes. Overall, his style was very sophisticated and clean, yet it still felt cozy. But I digress, because Brian’s day job was as the football coach at our high school, and “his balls,” as Cassandra fittingly called them, stressed him out to no end. So much so that he neglected our training, which resulted in serious disaster. In the month or so since then, even though the Spring River Bog Lemmings (yep, the lemming is our school mascot) managed to close out the season and take home a trophy that they all spit in, or whatever it was you did with a trophy, Brian had been working overtime to get us up to speed. Which meant that Cassandra and I were working overtime too. We hadn’t planned to meet up to train tonight, so Brian’s urgent call was kind of a bummer. I was looking forward to a night off. I had plans. I mean, I was going to put a blackhead mask on my nose and watch the Versace American Crime Story for the fourth time. Those were plans, right?