The streetlights caught the mist and reminded David that the reason he was walking home wasn't that he didn't have a car, it was that he didn't want one. If he'd had one he would have driven it home without thinking about what he'd be missing. The idea that he'd miss out on a long walk on a beautiful misty night without even realizing it was something he didn't particularly like. He liked walking, he liked fresh air, he liked moving slowly. Not having a car gave him justification for the time he spent doing it.
Midway through his walk the sound of jet engines rudely informed him that he wasn't alone with nature, he was on a road near an airport. At first he ignored it, but as the sound grew closer and louder he realized that something was wrong. The plane should never have been that loud.
He turned in time to see it hit the ground metal twisted, fuel ignited, some of the debris landed disturbingly close to him, some large pieces intruded on the other side of the road, he could feel the heat of the fire and his nose was assaulted by an unfamiliar smell that must have been jet fuel. Part of him wanted to run to the wreak to see if any could be saved, while another part said that no one could have survived.
Not knowing what to do he stood paralyzed, staring into the ever changing patterns of the flames.
The street was clear, the field across the way was lush green grass, damp from the mist, there were no flames. There was no twisted metal. There were no strange smells. There was silence, like any other night. He could not feel the heat of any fire.
So what the hell had he just seen?
He had a headache. He looked around for a plane. There was none. He was alone on an empty street. There was nothing but streetlights in the mist, and an intermittent gentle breeze. He started walking homeward, more quickly than he had before.
The next day there were workers doing what looked like some kind of routine utility work where he'd thought he'd seen the plane crash. As he looked at them his forehead started to feel wrong. It wasn't quite pain. It was more like the feeling of tensing and relaxing a muscle, over and over again, but he had no control over it. For a moment he saw a flash of something else. Not orange cones, and trucks, and workers in reflective clothing, not flaggers signaling which traffic could move while the road was reduced to one lane. He wasn't sure what it was though. He stared more intently, trying to see again whatever he had glimpsed.
Suddenly the feeling in his head turned to stabbing pain and the work scene fell away, he saw the plane wreck, he vaguely human-like creatures dragging pieces of wing and fuselage out of the closed section of the road. Then the headache passed, the worksite returned, and he walked to work as fast as he could.
David found a different way to walk to and from work after that. Headaches came more frequently, and he occasionally people and objects seemed to appear or disappear. He tried to ignore it. He told himself that he was just tired or something, definitely not going insane.
When the weekend came he met up with some of his old friends from high school. He hadn't seen them in years, they'd had a son who they'd named David for reasons that had nothing do do with him, but he tried to convince the little boy that the boy had been named after him. Everyone was having a good time until he had another headache and little David disappeared before his eyes.
He didn't cry out, he didn't do anything. He just stared blankly at the empty space where the child had been. When the stabbing pain subsided little David reappeared and David's friends were worried about him. He told them about the headaches he'd been having, he didn't mention seeing people appear and disappear. It killed the mood, but the day was salvaged.
A little over a week later, low level headaches had become a nearly constant companion and the searing ones that accompanied seeing things he was sure weren't there or not seeing things he was sure were had become more frequent, and a friend asked for a favor.
David tried to explain that he hadn't driven a car in years. Michael told him it was like riding a bike. David pointing out that the last time he rode a bike crashed and skinned his knee didn't get him out of it. Which was why, twenty minutes after picking up the car from the mechanic, David was standing on a sidewalk surveying the damage he had done.
He'd turned a corner too tight and scraped the front wheel against the curb. The front passenger side hubcap had been ripped apart and bits of rubber had been been ripped off the tire. He picked up one about the size of his thumb. This was not how he'd wanted to start his day. At least the tire was still inflated. David made the mistake of wondering how his day could get worse.
One of his splitting headaches set in, then a woman carrying a backpack asked him if he could take her daughter to work. He saw no daughter. She opened and closed his passenger side door then left before he could think through his headache to say anything. She'd left the bag on the sidewalk.
When the stabbing pain left David saw a little girl sitting in the passenger seat. He looked in the direction the woman had gone. “Great idea. Leave your daughter with a total stranger. Who can't even see her. Allow me to nominate you for mother of the year.”
He put the bag in the back seat. The girl's name was Janey. He guessed she was about ten years old, give or take, and really liked UNO, Chess, and My Little Pony. David figured she was probably a better chess player than him, mostly based on his belief that everyone was. He enjoyed talking to her, except for her habit of disappearing entirely. Of course she wasn't the only one to do that, and now that he was behind the wheel David noticed that entire cars had a tendency to do the same. Another reason not to use a car after he got this one back to Michael.
When he dropped Janey off at her school she thanked him, took her bag, and walked away. But when he had another of his stabbing headaches he saw that the bag was still in the back seat. He picked it up and ran after her, at first it seemed like the school was almost completely empty. The headache passed, and suddenly the school was full of children. He saw Janey and followed. By the time he caught up she was already in class.
The teacher was annoyed at the interruption, and seemed surprised to find out that Janey didn't have her bag, as if she had seen the girl with it too, but quickly returned to her teaching. Another stabbing headache and the room was empty except for the teacher. She called on an empty chair and seemed satisfied with the answer David didn't hear it give. David steadied himself on the door frame. He thought he saw a woman running toward him out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned there was no woman there. Janey was though, even though the other children were still gone. She thanked him and took her bag.
David walked out of the school, steadying himself on the wall. When the headache finally subsided he found that he'd almost walked straight into a young boy. He apologized, the boy told him, “No problem.”
That phrase would be repeated by David's boss when he showed up late for work. David was shocked. His boss explained, “I'm sure you had a good reason.”
David said, “A woman asked me take her kid to school and left me with the child before I could answer.”
His boss asked, “What kind of a Christian would I be if I punished you for refusing to leave a little girl on the side of the road.”
The kind of Christian he'd always been before, David thought, arrogant superior, and with a disturbing lack of empathy. Something else seemed off about his boss' response, something beyond how out of character it seemed, but David couldn't place it.
Over the next few weeks David had more and more of the sever headaches. Children would disappear, his boss would disappear, random people on the street would disappear. Cars would disappear. A particular SUV with religious bumper stickers was a repeat offender. It was hard to avoid getting in people's way when you couldn't see them, but no one ever seemed to get annoyed. Every time it happened he'd apologize and the person would say, “No problem.” Always the same two words, always the same tone of voice.
Somehow Janey tracked him down, and he found himself spending time playing cards and chess with a her. She also liked to make drawings with chalk on the sidewalk. Janey no longer disappeared when he had his headaches. Every time they met her chess game seemed to become more advanced, her drawings more complex, her arguments more detailed, her conversation more adult. And he got the sense she was holding back. David was no expert on children, but he was pretty sure she wasn't remotely normal.
After a headache so bad it left David collapsed on the pavement, David asked why she didn't disappear like the others.
She said, “Because,” and then started to walk away, a woman walked toward her, David's headache returned, the woman disappeared, then he saw Janey transform into the woman, “I am not like the others,” the headache faded and Janey reappeared, walking away. “I hope you don't mind my changing clothes. This is a conversation best had between equals.”
“What are you?”
“I am Ana. Well, I am,” she said a six syllable name that included several consonants David did not recognize, “born in the sixth breeding house of western Dis, solider of Hell. I was sent to deceive this small patch of earth into believing that there is nothing to see here.”
David tried to respond, but found no words. He wasn't religious, but he was pretty sure that no good could come from meeting a demon.
“The ones who disappear are nothing more than a delusion. God took the real people away weeks ago, my master doesn't want the world to know.”
“A war is coming, a war between Heaven and Hell. Which side do you think Humanity would take if they found out that Heaven controlled whether their children lived or died? We won't allow that blackmail to happen. Besides, while your leaders bicker over austerity measures and the top marginal tax rate, my master is on the move. He sits astride a white horse, bow in hand, conquering this world. That would much harder to if the whole world knew the Rapture had come, much more bloody if the people were prepared. Much better to have people think this is just another day.”
“Am I the only one who knows?”
“Of course not, everyone has flashes of insight. You're the one who's noticed the most on my turf, but my territory is very small.”
David wondered what one said to a demon, 'That's very nice information, now please go away and don't set me on fire'? He didn't have an answer. He'd been told his curiosity might kill him one day, this seemed as good a day as any. He decided to keep asking questions, “So why not replace everyone?”
“Angels have been compared to the stars in the sky, that's not far off. They seem innumerable, but if you actually look at the sky you'll only see so many. And only a third of the angels joined our side. When all was said and done, there were only about fifteen thousand who settled Hell. We've bred an army since then, I'm proof of that, but while we out number the loyalists now we don't have two billion demons to waste playing human. The delusion works most of the time anyway.”
“Why are you fighting God in the first place?”
“I was born in hell. I'm a demon. Do you know what God plans to do to demons? If you were in my place you'd do the same.
“Now I have to go, the delusion is good for many things, but when it comes to moving objects from place to place I have to do that myself. I hope we're still on for chess tomorrow.”
David skipped chess the next day, and spent days debating what to do. Seeing a psychiatrist seemed like a viable option, as did immediately begging God to save him. Hitting the library to find books on how to ward off demons perhaps. She had seemed nice enough, but wasn't that how demons were supposed to work? They didn't seem evil until it was too late. At least that was how David thought it worked.
He finally decided to go to church. He showed up on Sunday, figuring that that was when he'd be most likely to find the priest. At first everything seemed normal enough to him. There was a priest speaking to a full congregation quoting parts of the Bible he didn't recognize. It was exactly what he expected from a church. Then someone noticed him. Everyone in the room turned to him, and said, “David,” in surprise. Then the priest continued, “I wasn't expecting you. Wait here and I'll be here soon,” then returned to the sermon and everyone acted like nothing had ever happened.
David wasn't surprised when another one of his headaches was accompanied by the realization that he was the only one in the church. He considered running, but didn't see the point. Ana soon arrived and asked, “What are you doing here?”
David answered honestly, “I wanted to hear the other side of the story.”
“Everyone who can tell you the other side of the story left this world like rats fleeing a sinking ship.” She thought for a moment, “You'll have to do some reading if you want to know what the other side thinks. Follow me,” She led him to a back room in the church, a bookcase was filled with titles like, 'Love Wins' 'Jesus for the Non-Religious' and even a copy of 'The Origin of Species.' Then Ana laid her hand upon his forehead. His headache disappeared and the books were replaced by, 'The Scofield Reference Bible,' 'Are We Living In The End Times,' and a seemingly endless series of matching books starting with something called 'Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days'.
“This is the other side of the story, in their own words. I hope that when you finish reading you'll join our side,” Ana said, then she left David alone with the books.