Kyle ran down the middle of street, dodging between the empty cars that had clogged the freeway for days now. He was not accustomed to the running, months before the rapture being spent comfortably seated in his Jetta – graduation gift from his parents long before they floated on with most of the world – delivering pizza to the drunken college masses of Madison. The shadow now ran 5 feet ahead of him, covering him and hiding him from the setting sun. He did not look back – did not need to – because the shadow was not the threat but was attached firmly to it. He didn’t believe it himself, but everyone this side of the rapture ran from their own demons. He ran down the nearest off-ramp, hoping to hide in a building if he could give it the slip.
At the bottom, he spoiled a precious three seconds glancing left and right before deciding on a peculiarly-lit facade across the street. Throwing the door open and slamming it home behind him, he heard the skittering sound of…
“Heya, a customer! Welcome to Mike’s Milk’n’Ice. Can I get you something?” The sound of another living person startled Kyle and he whipped around to the man who stood in classic soda jerk costume behind the counter. “Selection’s a little limited but the trucks stopped coming a long time ago. We do have Vanilla, Pistachio and… Well, the third one doesn’t have a name anymore, but it’ll cure what ails you.”
Kyle warily approached the counter and briefly broke eye contact with the glacial confectioner to glance down at the tubs of ice cream behind the protective glass sheet – the first two flavors were apparent but the third appeared nearly black even in the florescent lighting. Returning his gaze to the man, Kyle was not at all surprised to read the name tag that identified him as the ‘Mike’ of ‘Mike’s Milk’n’Ice’. “I, uh… I didn’t know anyone would be in here. I was just hiding from-”
“You lost your demon out there, eh? Which one is on your tail?”
“What do you mean?” Kyle took a nervous step backward, having not been questioned so directly about his phantom pursuer in the few previous human contacts of his post-rapture nightmare.
“I mean,” Mike chuckled as he scooped a single creamy ball of vanilla ice cream onto a small cone and leaned back on the counter, “What is the incarnation of beasty that chases you into my little scoop of paradise? I’ve heard of amorphous masses made up of the faces of all exes the pursued had failed to commit to. I’ve heard of giants the shape of saints and all manner of manifestations of latent failures of faith. What was chasing you out there?”
Kyle fell back into the chair, wincing as his funny bone contacted the edge of the table forcefully with the follow-through of his seated descent. Just thinking about the demon subconsciously pulled his eyes to the door. “It’s… Yeah, it’s… One of those. The giant saint thing.”
“Now Kyle, you shouldn’t lie to a glacier, especially one who’s harboring your from the unnatural.”
Kyle’s eyes slowly turned back to Mike’s leathery face, wondering as the man’s gray eyes twinkled. “I… How did you know my name?”
“It says it on your jacket, sport. You must’ve been running for a while if you forgot that already,” Mike chuckled as he made up a triple-scoop of the third flavor which he carried around the end of the counter to offer to the twenty-something at the table. Proffering the cone to Kyle, Mike descended to a wire-backed chair in the backwards orientation, resting his chin on the metal arch. “But I’m going to have to ask you to keep running if you won’t adhere to the best policy.”
Honesty is the best policy, a voice that may have been Kyle’s conscience floated across his brain. Oddly, it sounded like Mike. “I don’t know. It’s got like a thousand legs, and it’s just… It bleeds everywhere,” he gestures absently with the cone, not tasting or even attending to the frozen treat in his hand. “But it never shrinks. Just bleeds, constantly. When it stops, I can hear… crying. A baby crying. Like, I think that’s what it does when it breathes. It doesn’t have a face, or features. Just a pile of bleeding – oozing, maybe – junk on a thousand skittering legs.” He noticed the ice cream after a minute of silence passed between the two men; Mike leaned forward as the cone was raised to parched and starving lips. It tasted like the coldest clearest water ever to wet the face of the earth. “What about you? What’s your demon?”
“My demon? Well, I can’t rightly say that I have one.”
“But everyone has one. Everyone who wasn’t taken up has a demon to run from. That’s the way of the world now.” Kyle puzzled at the man as he took another bite; the ice cream seemed to taste a little grittier now. “The best policy cuts both ways, doesn’t it, Mike?”
The laugh and smile was genuine as the septuagenarian’s face lit up. “I like that, Kyle. I like you a great deal. And yes, those men who were here and remained after the rapture all have their demons to weather. But the rules are different for those of us who come up, or out.”
Another bite half-fell out of Kyle’s mouth as the ice cream turned to mud in his mouth. “U-… Up?”
Mmhmm. You got it right, Kyle. That time, he knew the voice was there.
“Well, not me. I’m out, not up. But I’m glad you like your demon so much. I picked it especially for you.” Mike stood up and pushed his chair back into the table, making his way back to the counter.
“Are you a demon?” Kyle looked around for a napkin, which he placed the ice cream on delicately.
“Me? One of those? No, that’s just crude.”
“Then… The devil?”
“Not that either. You’re in the right scope though. Consider me an independent contractor with many names. I’ve been Set, Anansi, Wisakedjak, Kokopelli, Coyote, Loki and – of course – Mike. You may continue calling me Mike because I think I generally like you.”
Kyle nodded a lot, mouth working silently as he struggled to process half of what was said. Three days prior, he would have discounted the man as insane, but when the world itself goes insane, then insanity is not to be questioned. Finally, he looks back up, bravely meeting Mike’s eye line. “So… What did you mean by ‘out’?”
“I knew I liked you.” Mike beamed, filling a glass with a clear and carbonated beverage from the fountain. Filling a second glass at the same time, he came back over to the table and resumed his backwards perch. He placed one of the two glasses in front of Kyle and gestured to it. “Well, out is not precise, but it’s suitable for the scope of the environment. I was neither up nor down, according to the paradigm. Not aligned with Capital G nor with the horned one. Simply elsewhere. But now that the flip has been switched, I was approached for my services.”
“So, you work for Hell?”
“They pay the bills, yes.”
“Then, why are you harboring me?”
“Do you have nothing but glowing things to say about your former employer, or was he kind of an asshole?” Mike took a long pull from the straw in his glass. “I agreed to work, I never agreed to go above and beyond. And, even if I had… I’m the Trickster, since when does my word mean what I say?”
Kyle stared blankly, but his head was nodding as though he understood. He took a sip from the glass in front of him and his eyes bugged out as an explosion of melon and rum detonated on his taste buds. His eyes bugged out and for a minute he forgot what lurked outside this ice cream parlor. “What is that?!”
“That’s whatever you most want it to be. I’m guessing it’s the wop you and your buddies made the first 4th of July after graduation though, right?”
Kyle took another sip and then nodded as that night came back to him. “Exactly! That’s…” His face fell again when he remembered that he’d probably never see any of those guys again.
“Well, you sure do get somber mighty fast Kyle.”
“It’s just, you’re not going to let me stay here forever. Which means I’m going to have to go back out there, running again.”
“Well, yeah, but you might die ten seconds after you go out that door. Why not do a little living while you’re alive?” Mike looked irritated, and he pushed his glass away from him.
“Or I’ll live three years, running for my life, and then die. That last bit is definite.”
“It might be. It might not. You don’t know either way, do you Kyle? Haven’t lived through one of these before, have you?” Mike stood up again, pushing in his chair as carefully as before.
“Do you know?”
“Me? Nope. I’m just a contractor. And it’s closing time.”
Kyle’s eyes widened at that and he flinched back towards the corner of the room. “I can’t go back out there!”
“You know Kyle, I can’t say, ‘See you later,’ if you don’t go.”
“Say it? Yes.”
“No, will you see me later?”
“If I were you, I would act on the assumption that I mean what I say this time. But keep in mind that you’re going to be responsible for getting to our next meeting.” Mike picked Kyle up by the arm, gently escorting him to the door.
“How will I find you again?”
“You didn’t find me the first time. I found you, and I’ll be watching you. Make it popcorn-worthy and we’ll do this again.”
“Popcorn-worthy?” Kyle’s hand pressed the door frame, attempting to brace himself against the horror to which he knew he would inevitably return.
“While I’m quite good at amusing myself, I like to be entertained. Now, scoot. You might even have a head start.” With a twinkle, Mike threw the door open and Kyle out of it. As the young man’s eyes adjusted to the twilight that had fallen across the street, he glanced back to the facade, only to find an empty lot where he had sheltered only moments before. He stared at the pavement, wondering if it was normal to go insane after 3 days of running.
Faintly, in the distance or around the corner, a baby cried.