THE EXCHANGE STUDENT
By: Richard Jeter
There was fire, which she was used to. But then came all-encompassing light, not the ruddy glow to which she was accustomed. This was somehow worse than the familiar flames, burning in a different fashion.
Then there was darkness, and that…that was completely foreign. And unsettling.
There was stillness, and an absence of pain. The last echoing susurrations of a chant filled the space around her, and then that, too, was gone.
Breathless anticipation descended, broken moments later, by--
“Crap. It didn’t work.”
A voice? Somewhere to her right, making horrible, guttural sounds that she did not understand, but somehow grasped immediately. A battle raged inside her head, between comprehension and revulsion. Her vision strained to acclimate to this dim new hell.
“See, I told you this was stupid. Come on, Rachel, we’re gonna miss all the good candy.”
Another, differently toned utterance. Why could she not see?! She tried to turn her head, but there was resistance, an overwhelming sense of struggle, of panic. But she wasn’t panicking, why would she? Or was she? Strange lines of demarcation formed in her consciousness, barricades preventing the full use of her faculties, constructed by some unknown builder.
Lost in the dark, her strength rapidly waned. She felt herself becoming very small, guttering as a candle flame losing its grip on the wick. Fortuitously, as though willed in to being, her eyes caught sight of that very thing; a tiny flame on a melted black candle, sitting forlornly around a chalk pentagram with four of its companions, all of whom had already burnt out.
This flame, she could center on. It was known. She focused, with all her might, and it grew. And she grew. Both of them subtly, but appreciably.
“Rachel, you coming?”
Her head turned, with creaking, agonizing slowness, to face these sounds. The resistance was fading, a grappling fighter succumbing to a stronger foe.
The speaker was looking at her, expectantly. Through force of will, she shattered a couple of the weakening barriers in her mind, searching for information.
It was called Amber. It wanted a response. She rummaged further, a mechanic in a disorganized toolbox, looking for the right implements.
“Yes,” she experimented. That felt right. “I am coming.”
Amber gave her a look, its scrunched face inscrutable. Its shoulders shrugged, and it turned away, walking towards…stairs. To…the surface? Excitedly, she reached for control of her legs.
The other in her mind, the wall-builder, surged in a desperate last stand. They stumbled, fell to the ground. Her palm touched a white powder that formed a sloppy perimeter around the pentagram – salt, the word floating to the surface – and her hand convulsed in pain until she could brush it off.
The fall brought her closer to the candle. Closer to the flame. She gazed in to it, drew from it. She felt the walls, and their builder, melting like wax, screaming, farther and farther away, until they were nothing but wispy smoke in the darkness of her thoughts.
“Rachel? Talk to me, girl.”
A different creature, Bethany who went by Rowena, was shaking her.
“I’m fine, Rowena." Speech came more fluidly now. She scanned the newly liberated planes of her knowledge for a response. “I think I’m just exhausted. I was hoping the summoning would work. I really thought we might get to talk to a demon. I guess that sounds crazy, right?”
Rowena helped her up with a sympathetic smile. “We all were, honey. Our little coven's last Halloween before graduation should be spectacular. Oh well, these robes look like costumes anyway. We can get some trick or treating out of the deal before Brad's party. Come on.”
The one who once was Rachel ascended to the surface world, through a yawning portal of a doorway, out of the abandoned house everyone swore was haunted. At first sight of her, a black cat Amber had been petting hissed and darted off toward town.
Toward a seemingly endless sea of brilliant, glowing, delicious souls.
Somewhere below, the final black candle flickered, dimmed, extinguished. In the smoke, the twisted, screaming face of a girl who no longer was hovered in the night air for a moment, then dissipated to nothingness.