Fixed in a fetal position with a small stream of dream spit bubbling from the corner of his mouth, Francis was fast asleep and in a dream world all his own, comfortably ignorant of the jet-black demon at the foot of his bed.
A single twitch from Francis’ shoulder caused the bed to bounce up and down, softly. A grey, silk-smooth, three-hundred-count comforter sheet blanketed him from neck to ankles. Orange earplug ends shot out of his earholes towards the ceiling, past a framed, lopsided poster of Hugh Jackman’s face as Wolverine.
Discarded, half-read comics were scattered across the room, superhero faces sinking into the carpet, an issue of The Walking Dead angling precipitously off the corner of a computer desk.
Light from a flat panel monitor gave off a callous glow, casting the room in a faint hue of cerulean and creating shadow outlines on the walls.
Francis’ rhythmic breathing gave his shadow a life of its own, a sea of miniature black bedcover mountains rising and falling against the door to his bedroom. The demon paid no attention to any of this as it brushed against Francis’ exposed ankle, lightly, with a long, cylindrical finger.
Francis moved, drool dripping off of his chin and roiling down the pillowcase, sleepily swatting at his kneecap before settling back into the dream with his hand limply returning to his distended beer-belly.
Matted brown hair limped from his head and onto the pillow in sweaty clumps.
Leading a life of quiet unobtrusiveness isn’t as easy as one might think, especially at the level with which Francis conducted his; day-in and day-out, perpetually spinning around in a security guard blender of day and night shifts, buying clothing that doesn’t stand out, on the cheap, from the Macy’s at the mall next door and, aside from the occasional family get together, rarely setting foot outside of his shabby, cloistered studio.
To Francis, the value of quiet comfort and routine far outweighed the potential for wealth or the strain required to succeed in any way that society would deem acceptable.
The demon knew this, and every night it feasted on Francis’ weakening soul.
Francis shifted to one side as his eyes slid open. “Who’s there?” he spoke, half in a dream state and without expecting an answer. If Francis would have opened his eyes further and glanced towards the foot of the bed, he would have seen the skeletal demon cloaked in black shadows tickling his right foot and slowly moving closer to the bed, inch by inch.
Nearly two minutes passed as Francis’ eyelids resealed. The thing lurched over the end of the bed, bending impossibly in an arc and blotting out the monitor light as Francis fell into the dark eclipse behind the monstrous form.
Francis sniffed at the air, hungrily, obese, and his nose twitched and curled into a bunch as though breathing in rancid meat. In a way, he was; but he didn’t know all about the history of the skin demons, their lineage, their hopes nor dreams, how and where they travel and the certain, witless souls they prey upon.
He was simply clueless to the fact that this particular brand of demon was the cruelest, and the hardest to get rid of.
No amount of séance or ritual ever extracted a skin demon. Once they found an acceptable target, with a weakened soul, mind and body, they were as immovable as a mountain.
And yet, within his dream world, he was safe. Or so he thought. The lurching demon stretched over Francis’ sleeping form. A rain of worms splashed from the skin demon down to the bed top as it moved, cascading off of Francis’ body and collecting into small pools within comforter folds, bouncing and squirming underneath the covers and onto the floor.
The temperature in the room dipped, heavily, so that Francis’ breath came shooting out of his nostrils in small puffs. A maggot crawled slowly upon his neck, moving around behind his jawline and seeking the warmth of his ear. It disappeared behind an orange earplug, sidling inside as though under directive, a miniature heat seeking devourer.
Francis’ left arm came flying from underneath the covers to swat at his head, haphazardly dispersing maggots around his room, the comforter flying off in a flit of panic.
The worm behind his earplug exploded as his palm landed on it, smashing it to pieces and causing him to bolt upright in the bed.
Darkness had overtaken everything, and what with Francis being none-too-bright and living with bugs for most of his life, it was only a momentary awakening that he’d had before pulling the cover back over his shoulder and returning his heavy head to the pillow.
The demon knew that, in order to fully capture Francis’ soul, he must find a way to bring the man close to insanity, to the brink, so that he’d willingly make the trade – just to get rid of the sense of doom and despair. The demon smiled, the tar-like film on its skull pulling back to reveal row after row of blackened gums. This was going to be fun.
An hour passed as the demon stood curved over the top of the bed, staring down at Francis and draining worms from its corpulent husk, onto the sheets and comforter, amassing and building a worm-cocoon around Francis’ sleeping form. Soon, they’d overtaken him entirely, the mass weighing him down and covering all but his head.
The skin demon looked somehow leaner, all bone and black shroud, a horrifying scarecrow of unreality, bent forward and satisfying its innate lust for conversion. Its head was massive, resembling the skull of a horse. As Francis’ breathing began coming in slower, pained gasps due to the added weight of a bed full of worms, his eyelids told the demon that he was back inside the dream.
A dream of terror, of pain and suffering, of infinite loss.
One that the demon had constructed well in advance. In fact, Francis wasn’t the first fool whom the demon had toyed with in this particular way; there were countless others throughout history – some of them important, some of them, like Francis, entirely forgettable.
As Francis dreamt the horror dream, a tongue began to slide out from the open space in the demon’s mouth, black and oily, eel-shaped, twisting roughly down and sliding behind Francis’ neck, wrapping around and around in a death spiral and tightening snugly into place. There it stayed for a while, feeling Francis’ heartbeat and the rhythmic pulsing of his blood.
Along the tongue were small, rough pores which began to open, dark red barnacles containing even smaller wire-like seekers, things that shot out and pierced Francis skin. Red, bead-like spheres pumped through the seekers, and within moments began filling Francis full of dark thoughts.
Francis thrashed suddenly, but the demon was prepared. The maggots would hold him, and it was only a slight reverberation of his dream which had caused him to turn and twist so. Francis was powerless against the ages, of times long forgotten but not entirely vanquished, of things that were lost to the memory of man.
The demon folded around Francis, layering him in a new blanket, the soft fabric of its being providing shelter and warmth. Like a lover, it nestled beside and over Francis as he slept and dreamt the dark dreams of murderous rage he would experience over the following weeks.
Throughout the night, Francis jerked occasionally as the emotions were fed to him, as his dreams spelled death, and his inevitable breaking floated in the air like a death rattle.
When the morning came, Francis yawned deeply and shuffled into the shower, letting the hot water scald his naked skin, washing the sleep from his eyelids and punching the snot from his nose. His morbid frame bounced and jiggled in the tiny compartment as his elbows struck the walls and curtain, and he swore under his breath and mumbled obscenities during the cleanse.
The demon watched, delighted, as Francis’ temper began to roil and rip, rise and fall, and it set the tone for the day to come.
Clasping a navy blue clip tie firmly in place on his security dress shirt, Francis moved to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator to grab the sack lunch he’d prepared the night before. He stood abruptly and smashed his head into an open cabinet door which the demon had casually exposed.
A small rivulet of blood began to make its way down Francis’ temple and into the corner of his eye, and it entered there, swimming and swirling around his retina until all he could see was red. He quietly closed the cabinet and jerked a paper towel from its roll, pressing it to his face as he slid out the front door on his way to work.
The demon would follow, as it always did now; a shadow in the corner of the parking garage or a quiet stranger working late in an office where Francis was patrolling, to ensure that he was well on his way to schizophrenia, paranoid that he was committed to a life of ruin and despair, and that his soul would be ripe for harvesting at just the right moment.
Throughout the day, Francis would reach behind his head to scratch the nape of his neck, certain that something had brushed his skin.