This is not a long or a complicated story. There's a Door to Hell in the basement of my diner, right next to where we stack the boxes from food deliveries. It's really annoying; there's always mystical crap coming out, and then Ryan smashes everything up trying to get rid of said mystical crap. Blood gets everywhere, lots of demon guts, lots of salt circles and painted sigils. And I put all the replacement food and equipment on my credit card, so you can see how this gets tedious.
Not that I necessarily mind having Ryan around—he's a demon hunter. A guy with big, weird weapons, dark eyes, and stubble. Leather pants, leather duster, beat up black t-shirt, and a big black cowboy hat he has very carefully explained is a Stetson and not, ahem, "a cowboy hat." In a word: hot.
In daylight, on the street, he looks like a poker player come out of an all-night game, where the stakes were high and the players were rough and he doesn't quite remember that normal people don't generally try to hide their thoughts behind a blank face and lowered hat brim.
I don't usually see him on the street, though. It's always under the fluorescents in the diner kitchen, or in the uncovered lightbulbs of the basement. Ryan and sunshine and me don?t seem to mix. Forget the poker-player thing; to me, he always looks like he's just finished fighting a war. He hasn't, though—finished fighting, I mean. I guess he can?t.
Ryan?s got a cot in the basement—he has for the last six years, ever since the Door was opened. (Okay, true confession time: Ever since I opened the Door, me and my two best friends. And yes, it was really, really dumb. We have gotten the lecture, read the pamphlet, and sat through the after-school special. We know.)
Anyway. Ryan's almost always near the Door. Sometimes, if a demon gets past him, he'll leave to hunt it down. And sometimes he just goes out to, I don't know, pick up his mail or something. I get kind of nervous those times, though—worried that one day I'm going to go into the basement to get, like, more rice or something, when he isn't guarding the Door, and end up vamped. Or eaten by a zombie. Or slimed on by a sludge demon.
Look, you never know.
And it's not as if I'm getting any perks by Ryan being around (aside from not being dead, I mean). I tried that once—okay, more than once; it was late, I was drunk, and we'd just met over the corpse of something that bled yellow—and he wasn't interested. Which was fine. Probably better, come to think of it. Ryan, for all that he's hot, is also a jerk.
And I'm not just saying that because he turned me down. Much.
I'm not much to look at, I guess. I can see that every day, when I look at Amanda. She's been my friend since before Mom ran off with her tennis instructor and, coincidentally, with the contents of the family coffers. It was Amanda who actually stuck around and let my father and me sleep in her family's pool house, got me out of bed in the mornings, bullied the hell out of me until I got a job at Sally's Diner. She was even supportive that I kept working at Sally's, even though Amanda and I are from Long Island and Sally's is in Brooklyn. (If you're not from New York, stuff like that doesn't matter, but New Yorkers know it is a fight to the death between Long Island and Brooklyn.)
On the other hand, the problem with Amanda is—well, she has a lot of problems. Her biggest one, I guess, is that she's a crazy alcoholic who spends a lot of time having sex with inappropriate men to make up for whatever emotional problems come along with having too much money and not enough hobbies. Ryan probably falls into the realm of inappropriate men, and he wouldn't be the first to pass over me to settle on her. Even when she looks like trash, she looks classy. If she had perfect bow lips, she'd actually look a little like Greta Garbo, because she's very pointy; she doesn't though. She's pointy and her lips are wide and plump. I kind of envy her lips. She doesn't appreciate them.
I don't actually know if Amanda's slept with Ryan. Now, if Stan had gotten good with Ryan, that I would have known about. He's the only other one who stuck around through the Great Depression of Me. The big problem with Stan, aside from how almost everyone he knows calls him Stan even though his name is Charles, is that he went from being a cute, nerdy, skateboarding geek to being a club kid. Like, he realized he was gay and bam! Or maybe he just watched too much Queer as Folk and thought that was really how gay men were supposed to be because he didn't know any better. So he spends a lot of time, like Amanda, having too much sex with people—except with Stan, I guess it's because he's making up for lost time. And also to find people who won't call him Stan, which makes sense. The club guys who give him blowjobs in alleys call him Dish.
That doesn't really bother me except for, you know, AIDS, and also that maybe one of those guys is Ryan. Except Stan swears not, and Stan wouldn't lie about that. So that leaves Ryan, tall dark handsome leather-wearing Ryan, apparently surrounded by people who'd happily jump him, and still finding the Door to Hell a lot more interesting.
Here are some important facts about the Door. One: It was Amanda's idea to open it, not mine. Two: It was a joke. We didn't even realize we were opening a Door into Hell, because we were super drunk at the time, and, seriously, joking around. Now that I know what Doors do and how they work . . . Well, I never wanted something so bad that I'd open a Door for it. Because three: The reason anyone would want to open a Door to Hell in the first place—with the death, and the blood, and the bioluminescent goo that you can't actually ever clean off the floor no matter how harsh the chemicals or how many black cats you drive across the stain (and that's a fun story)—the reason you do it is because the Door . . . gives you things.
I don't know what Amanda gets, or Stan. I barely know what I get. I just know I'm happier now than I was before the Door and Ryan showed up in my life. It doesn't say much about my life before the Door that probable death is a step up.
Not that I'd open one again, or would have the first time, if I actually knew then what I know now. Ryan says that Doors, like the one in the basement, lead to nine hells—or hell dimensions, or just dimensions, it depends on who's talking and how much they've had to drink, and did I mention that there might be more than nine, or less, or maybe pi?—and when a Door is opened, demons try to get through them.
Hunters wait on the other side.
Sometimes not, though. They're there when a demon goes through a Door they're watching, but they can't be everywhere.
What this means now is that when someone pounds on the diner's metal grate, I wake up. Usually it's someone pounding at four or five in the morning—either right after I go to sleep, or right before I am supposed to wake up. I always think, for a brief second, that it's demons knocking down my bedroom door—but it's usually Stan wanting to sleep off a good time, or Amanda wanting to steal my pillows and ice cream and bitch about her parents. It's never someone telling me I've won a million dollars.
Tonight it's—Ryan. Last I saw him, he was waving goodnight as he headed into the basement. Now Ryan is waving his Stetson at me from the street below. I open the window and lean out.
"What are you doing? It's four in the morning!" I holler, with no regard for the neighbors.
"You've got an animal problem!" he hollers back. He's got a nice twang in his voice, which gives me a nice twang in my belly. I sigh. Animal problem is code for werewolf.
"Then fix it!" I tell him.
"Not if there's still an animal problem!"
"Now!" He hits his Stetson against his thigh. I can't really see his face—the moon isn't quite full and he?s standing in the one tiny bit of shadow between the floodlights—but if I had to bet, I'd say he looks annoyed. And frankly, if he's going to keep yelling shit, those neighbors are going to call the cops. Again. So I pull on a robe and trudge downstairs to let him in through the side door.
"Ry." I greet him with a yawn. "What happened to your key?"
He ignores me. "The Door must've opened, because I ran into a werewolf on my way here," he says to me, and strides right past me into the back of the diner, coat flapping and everything.
"Sure it did," I say to the door as I close it. "And I'm happy to make a pot of coffee and stay up for the rest of the night and get no sleep and do everything and go everywhere and—"
"Stop bitching. I thought I trained you better than to let a werewolf get out of the Door." When I catch up to him, he's staring down at the line of table salt running in front of the basement door. He won't find any breaks in it, though—I handle foodstuffs for a living in a litigious society, I am careful.
Wait a sec. "How was I supposed to know you'd gone off?" I cross my arms over my chest. "Aren't you the one who's supposed to let me know when I have to guard the Door? When the mighty hunter has to go wander the fecund plains for shaving gel—"
"Quiet," he says, and pulls out his sawed-off shotgun from whatever magic pockets exist in his coat. The shotgun's shiny, and about a million years old. He doesn't shoot bullets with it—just rock salt and iron shot. About a month ago we spent an entire afternoon sitting in a booth in the front filling shotgun shells and telling bad jokes. He looked happy, and I guess that made me happy too. You know. If I cared.
He doesn't look happy now.
He pushes open the basement door slowly, and steps over the salt gun-barrel-first. He goes past the door and into the dark and then—I hear a sharp intake of breath. Followed by a load of quiet speech in a language I can't even identify.
"Allie," Ryan says from inside. "What the hell did you do."
It's not a question, which is not even remotely reassuring. I squint hard and scoot over the salt, prepping for the sound of the Door.
"It can't talk to you." Ryan's leaning against the wall, his shotgun dangling from one hand. I guess this means I'm not likely to die from demons just this second. And wow, he looks good leaning there.
While my sleep-deprived brain is thinking things it shouldn't, he finishes: "Because it's not here."
It takes me a second to focus on what he's saying, and then—
No. No way. I look around. There's this week's food, and there's the big stain, and there are the scratches the shape of Italy. There are the wire racks and the crates of bottled drinks and the rubber mat with all the soda water canisters for the machine upstairs. There's Ryan's camping cot pushed against the cement-block wall. And right beside the cot, outlined in another half-circle of salt and with the weirdest stains splashed around it . . . there is just the basement wall.
Ryan exits behind me, though I don't notice it right away. I think for a second he's gone out the front grate, for wherever demon hunters go when they suddenly don't have a Door to guard anymore, and then I can't breathe—but he's sitting in the booth closest to the kitchen, with his feet up on one of the green vinyl chairs. His eyes are closed and there's a smudge of something on one of his cheeks. It looks like a bruise, but when I get closer, I realize it's blood. Dark, dried blood.
"Hey," I say softly, and he doesn't acknowledge me. He's either sleeping or thinking. Should he be asleep with the Door gone? I hope he's sleeping, anyway, because he looks exhausted. His eyelids are black spots in his face, and his stubble is stubblier than usual, almost a beard already, and he smells like blood—but not human blood. Not all of it anyway.
Human blood has a certain scent. It smells the way pennies taste when you put them in your mouth. When you've got a Door in your basement, you learn pretty quickly what human blood smells like, because there's usually a lot of it all over the floor. Sally's—that's the name of the diner, after the little old lady who actually owns the place—has been lucky so far. No one who has died here has caused any kind of ruckus, so no cops have ever come looking.
I start some coffee. When it's ready, I fix myself a cup, set it on the counter, and bring a cup and the carafe out for him. I go to put it down in front of him, but, I mean, should I? Will that wake him? Damn. I step back, but before I can get too far his hand snaps out, grabs the cup, and then sets it down to go for the carafe too—all with his eyes closed. I am impressed, even though I almost poured the thing all over him. Which is what he deserves for being startling. I guess this means I don't have to worry about waking him, then. I head back to the counter to pick up my cup, and sit across from him with it to wait.
In the light streaming out from the kitchen, he looks young; like he's heading toward thirty, a little older than me (okay, shh, I am almost thirty). Ryan doesn't say it, but I've got to wonder if that's getting up there for a demon hunter. I've seen him do things that would tax a triathlete, let alone some grizzled old timer.
I've met a lot of demon hunters. They're usually in their early twenties. Demon hunting isn't a profession with a health insurance plan or a 401K, if you know what I mean. These guys don't last very long—most of them. I've seen older ones and I've seen younger ones. Ryan's getting up to the age of some of the older ones.
Most of the older ones are retired; most of them sit around and tell stories about their glory days, and they're founts of knowledge about obscure bullshit, but they don't fight anymore. They're missing eyes, hands, legs. One is missing his heart, literally, and he's kept alive by some crazy voodoo magic that I don't understand and he won't talk about.
His name is Dougal, and he always takes a seat by the front door; he says he likes the bell I've put up there. Some of the hunters who come in like to sit in one of the four booths next to the front windows, and they always have their Stetsons off and their faces toward the sun. I've got one guy who sits at the counter and doesn't say anything at all. The only reason I know he's a hunter at all is because of the hat—I thought he was a homeless guy for the longest time, before I clued in to the dress code.
I asked Ryan about him once—Ryan always sits in the booth by the swinging kitchen door when he sits out front at all, and he watches the crowd—and all Ryan would say is that if Homeless Guy ever actually came out and told any of us his story, it'd be time to cut our losses and run.