464: Agency Of Men

“Hey, hey, hey,” I said, as demons came swooping towards me. There were only half a dozen small ones, but they were red-eyed and very toothsome, so it was unsettling.

They grabbed me, dodging my attempts to swat them away, and dragged me towards the love of my life.

Try as I might to be the dutiful, respectful boyfriend, it’s hard to genuinely consider someone else your equal. Equal rights and equally deserving of whatever benefits you might get as a man — personally, I don’t get any, so help yourself to half — but an equal say in what you should do with your life?

I don’t think so.

“Get off!” I managed to catch a scaly limb — couldn’t tell if it was an arm or a leg or something else — and swung one demon into another.

Something pulled my shirt from behind, twisting me around. I kicked backwards and hit something that cracked. It released me, and then dug claws into my buttocks, making me jump up and do a very decent Karate Kid crane kick.

Which helped me break free, for a second. They came rushing back with added fervour, scratching and pawing at me.

While I was inside this demonic flurry of hands and claws, inexorably being drawn closer and closer to a destiny not of my choosing, it occurred to me that the moment I set eyes on Jenny, here, in front of me in the flesh, I should have felt happy.

I should have felt pleased. Excited. Maybe even relieved. Finally, the one person I didn’t mind scratching and pawing me was within reach. Cue uplifting orchestral music and slow-motion running into each other’s arms.

But that wasn’t what I had felt. My immediate reaction was annoyed. I could tell, even before she opened her mouth, that she was going to start telling me what to do.

Sure, she had her reasons. There was an emergency, there was no time to waste, there was a small window and she needed to stick me in it while stamping repeatedly on my backside to shove me through. I understood the need to sometimes skip the courteous stuff and explain later. But the thing was, even if there was a crisis that needed averting, why would she think I gave the slightest fuck?

In fact, if she knew me — and she did — she would know explaining things in a clear and accurate manner would most likely convince me to stay put. And the only way to get me to go along with the plan was to rush and bluster and leave no openings for deliberation.

I saw all of this the moment I saw her face. They say familiarity breeds contempt, but not because you get bored or tired of someone if you see them too much. Familiarity, if it’s time well spent, means you get to know that person. You get to know how they think and what tricks they use to get their own way. And what a less than ideal person they really are.

Which is true for everyone, of course. None of us are perfect, we just do our best to put on an act when in public. Don’t say the thing you’re thinking, don’t do that awful thing you would do if no one was watching.

But at home, with the ones you love, it’s hard not to let the truth slip out. It slowly leaks over time and even though you know you’re just as guilty of acting the same, you don’t have to see yourself doing it. If we had eyes on stalks and looked down at ourselves from a slight distance, we’d probably be just as disgusted with our own behaviour as we are with everyone else’s.

Some of the demons hauling me across the very neatly mowed lawn actually did have eyes on stalks. I could have asked them if my theory was correct. Others had bat wings, horns, teeth coming out of their ears (or maybe they were also horns, hard to say, I am not a certified demonologist). It was a bit of a freak show.

The larger demons had remained with Jenny, surrounding her like they were about to head off on a girls’ night out. Giving me the look, the one where they know all the emotionally insensitive things I’ve done to their girl and they intend getting drunk and explaining to her why she’d be better off shagging some random skeeze they wouldn’t mind shagging themselves. Women — just as good as men, just as bad as men.

“Will you stop pulling my hair,” I screamed, slapping wildly to get them off me.

It would have been easier to give in and just do what they wanted, but then it always is. Who wants to be that guy? The one who thinks he’s safe because he’s with a crowd, all goose-stepping in unison like a Korean boy band.

“No, stop, I’m going to get angry in a minute.” My complaints were being ignored, as was my struggling. Story of my life.

Then there was a loud crack and one of the demons suddenly had a large hole in one of its wings. It sealed itself up in a couple of seconds, but eyes (on stalks and not on stalks) turned to look at the men who were back on the wall, now with bigger guns.

“What the fuck, guys?” I shouted. “That could have had someone’s eye out.”

There were about a dozen of them, perched, looking through scopes. The nations had gathered together, finally, to attack the invading horde.

Special bullets? Superior firepower? They probably thought they could use bigger and badder against the demons and somehow come out on top. Just keep increasing the magnitude of destruction — RPGs, mortars, atomic bomb in a suitcase — and eventually someone would end up victorious. It was the way they had been taught to win.

The attention of the demons had switched to the men on the wall, so I had a moment’s respite to get my shit together. I could hold my ground and face Jenny on equal terms, and explain why I didn’t appreciate being press-ganged into service. We could talk like adults.

Instead, I stepped in front of the demons and raised my arms. “Hey, dumbfucks, cut it out. This isn’t a fight you can win with your bang-bang sticks, bunch of dipshits. You are not qualified, do you understand? Out of your depth, you worthless sacks of—” Was I mad at them or mad at myself and projecting? Who knows? They opened fire and didn’t seem to care about any civilian casualties, which is the modern form of heroism.

Used to be, the good guys were hamstrung by not wanting to risk shooting hostages. Gave the bad guys an unfair advantage, so someone worked up some game theory calculations, ran it through a computer model, and thought, fuck it, a couple of hostages were going to end up dead no matter what, we can spin it using our highly-trained public relations personnel. Open fire!

I wasn’t too worried, I had my healing ability, and if that didn’t kick in, in some ways death was preferable to what was waiting behind me. But much to my surprise, demons flew in the way and took the bullets for me.

They didn’t die but, unlike before, these bullets ripped chunks out of them.

There was a loud crack like thunder, only not from the sky. Cheng had decided to have a word.

The wall crumbled and everyone on top fell. None of them were badly injured, but it got the message through. They had brought guns to a demon fight. What they should have brought were exorcists. A couple of Catholic priests sneaking up behind you, cassocks flapping, that’d be enough to scare the shit out of the underworld’s worst offenders.

The guns flew off in different directions and the men began sliding across the turf. Cheng hadn’t done much in the way of the arcane arts since I’d arrived but now he was letting the observers see a little of what he could do. It was impressive how easily he dealt with a group of elite professionals. Not so easy when you don’t have the chips stacked on your side as you expertly take out a goat herder asleep on the side of a hill.

The men screamed as they scrambled to get some kind of a hold in the ground as they slid towards Cheng, leaving gouges in the topsoil. Not very manly of them. It was just a few demons and a bald guy with no shirt on. They must have seen worse during basic training.

“Why are you firing those weapons on my property?” said Cheng. “They aren’t legal here, are they? Don’t you have any respect for the law?”

Classic immigrant reaction, thinking the laws they were told about when they arrived applied to everyone.

One of the Russians pointed at Jenny, who was somewhere behind me. “Her. What?”

I looked over at her and got a taste of what they were seeing. She didn’t look very happy. If I had a gun, I might have been tempted to start blasting, too. Then I realised it wasn’t her foul mood that had spooked the men, it was her scarred face. I hardly even noticed it anymore, but to them, she must have seemed like something out of a horror movie; Queen of the Demons.

“Look, guys, you’ve got it wrong.” I was speaking to them as fellow blokes. We’d spent some time together doing touristy things, I’d even bought them ice creams. We weren’t friends, but I liked to think we had developed a mutual respect. “She isn’t a monster, she’s my girlfriend.”

They looked at me, mouths agape.

“She’s from Croydon.” That didn’t seem to improve their opinion of her. “I know you’re freaking out at the moment. None of this seems real and you want to blow things up and shoot your way out while making badass wisecracks to show you’re cool. All that training you did, all the missions you’ve accomplished, this isn’t going to end like that. If this was a movie, you lot would be the henchmen who shoot thousands of rounds and never manage to hit anything, and then die in an amusingly gruesome manner. That’s the only outcome for you. Better you just walk away. No one will believe you, anyway. Tell them you have PTSD — killing so many innocent women and children is starting to make you feel a little sad inside. They’ll understand. Collect the pension and join a private security firm. You can still wear sunglasses indoors, it’ll be fine.”

The guys were starting to get it. Even the Chinese ones who had no idea what I was talking about. Demons were everywhere and bullets did very little against them. It was bringing all their doubts to the surface and making them realise that photo on their phone of them standing on someone’s neck and reloading a gun didn’t actually count for much. I was doing my bit to help them make the transition to enlightenment.

“They have giant retractable penises,” I whispered loudly, pointing at the biggest demon. “If you stay on, they’ll know you’re up for it.”

“Are you done?” said Jenny. “Got it out of your system?”

I could tell she wasn’t going to make this easy.

“Why are you suddenly mistress of demonkind?” I asked her.

“They were in there with me,” she said, shrugging like what do you expect when you leave your girl on her own.

“Aren’t they supposed to be following you?” I asked Cheng.

He shrugged, like he also thought this was my fault. “They must have imprinted on her. They’re younger than they look.”

Apparently, demons were like chicks. And Jenny was mother to a whole brood.

“Great. Must be very fulfilling, but I’m not sure I’m ready for this kind of a commitment. I mean, it’s not that I’m against the idea of starting a family, eventually, when the time’s right, but this is a bit sudden.”

Jenny slowly closed her eyes and then opened them again. I recognised the move. The ‘let’s hope this is a bad dream and I’ll wake up’ move. It’s not very flattering when you’re the target.

“Colin, I haven’t seen you in ages. I missed you and I love you. But I swear, if you don’t stop pissing about, I’m going to…” Her lips went all wobbly, like she couldn’t decide which awful thing to put at the top of a very long list.

I walked over to her, shoving some very large demons out of the way. They knew not to get involved. Heightened threat-sensing ability.

“Jenny, come on,” I said, lowering my voice. “Not in front of the guys. You know how hard it is for me to make male friends and they think I’m cool. You’re making me look bad.”

“Why do you care about them?” She said, not getting it all. “Are any of them willing to have sex with you?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I haven’t asked.”

“Colin, we have to go. We need you.” She took my hand. She had a surprisingly strong grip, but I pulled myself free. It helped my hand was sweaty and damp. Finally, my nervous perspiration working to my advantage.

“No. I’m not going to go back to help them. They wanted to do it on their own, now they have to make the best of it. Good luck, have fun.”

“You know it isn’t that simple,” said Jenny. “You can show them what to do. You have that ability, don’t waste it.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. All I can show them is what it looks like to constantly fuck up and have everything work against you.”

Jenny looked at me, hands on hips. The demons copied her. It was disconcerting, to say the least.

“What do you think I see in you?” she said.

“Is this a trick question?” I asked.

“Anyone can succeed when things are set up to make sure they win. You never have things work for you. You fail over and over again. The people around you let you down. You can’t rely on anyone.”

“Have we moved on to a different question?” I was fairly sure these weren’t good reasons to be with someone.

“But you never give up.”

“I give up all the time,” I said, very certain I was on solid ground with this argument. Oh, the witnesses I could call.

“Listen to what you just said. How can you give up so often without…” She smiled with smug satisfaction. I could see why the demons had been drawn to her.

You can’t give up more than once without trying again more than once, was her point.

“You don’t give up. You never give up. Even when people let you down, you don’t let them down. Because you think you’re better than them, I know. You’re spiteful like that. I like that part most of all. And you’re right, you are better than them. That’s why you’ll come back with me, fix everything that they did wrong, and then walk away like it was no big deal, like it was easy for you, not worth even bragging about, just to make them feel terrible about themselves. You make me feel that way all the time, like I’m miles behind you.”

I felt a scaly hand fit into mine. I looked down and there was a small demon looking up at me with large crimson eyes, three of them. I shook off its disgusting claw.

“Fine. If it’s to make those ingrates feel bad, then I’ll do it.”

Familiarity breeds contempt, but intimacy, that’s a whole other level of knowing someone. Then you start learning stuff even they don’t know about themselves. And you can use it to show them who they really are. Or use it to destroy them. I didn’t know which Jenny was trying to achieve, but the girl was surrounded by demons. I suspected there was a clue there.

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