Molakesh the Destroyer moved into the house next door the summer I turned fifteen. There was the expected neighborhood gossip at first, with Mom and her friends worrying about what having a demon on our street might do for property values and with one particularly zealous neighbor lining her property with crosses, but it died down after a few months. Destroyer he may be called, but he kept his yard tidy and pulled in his trash cans at night, so the Homeowners Association turned their scowls on other targets.
For my part, I didn’t care who we shared a fence line with and pretty much forgot he existed. Until two days after the first winter snowstorm.
“You should shovel Molakesh’s driveway,” Mom said, peering out through the blinds of the kitchen window.
I looked up from my phone. “What?”
“There’s at least two feet of snow out there.”
“He’s a demon, Mom.”
Mom turned away from the window and opened the fridge. She rustled through produce bags and pulled out two large bell peppers. “Yes, but he’s old and there’s no way he’ll be able to get out of his driveway. I’m sure he doesn’t have snow tires.”
“Seriously? I just got home from school and now you want me to go to the demon’s house and—”
“It’s called service, Sarah Jean.” She set the peppers down on a wooden cutting board. She’d sauté them with onions, the only way she ever cooked bell peppers. I hated them, but my opinion was never taken into account in meal planning.
“It’s called insanity.”
Mom raised an eyebrow, the knife hovering above the pepper, and I knew what was coming next. “You can either practice service by shoveling our neighbor’s driveway, or you can spend tonight writing an essay on ten reasons why service is important.”
I groaned. “Fine. I’ll shovel his stupid driveway.”
Mom smiled and began chopping. “I knew you’d come around.”
I bundled up in my thick coat and gloves, then pulled on snowboots still coated in slush from my walk home from school. She didn’t even notice my parting glare as I stomped out of the house.
I grabbed our snow shovel and crunched through the yard toward Molakesh’s driveway, all the while composing an essay in my head titled “Ten Reasons Why Parents Suck.”
I paused just past his front window. The ever-present dark green curtains hung perfectly still, but I could have sworn I saw them shift out of the corner of my eye.
The snow on the driveway was pristine white and powdery, without a single set of tire-tracks marring the surface. I didn’t know if Mom was right about him not having snow tires — if a demon could buy groceries at Hal’s like the rest of us, I didn’t see why he couldn’t hit up an auto shop — but it was obvious he hadn’t left his house since the storm.
My shovel scraped along the concrete as I worked, pushing the snow into huge piles framing the driveway. I had done about a quarter of it when the front door opened and Molakesh poked his horned head out.
“What do you think you’re doing out there?” he demanded.
I only barely managed to keep from gaping. I’d seen Molakesh a couple times before around town, but the sight wasn’t exactly one you get used to. His face was every bit as wrinkled and patchy as my eighty-seven-year-old grandpa, and his steel-gray eyebrows almost as long, but the resemblance didn’t go much further. Curved horns about six inches long sprouted from a pockmarked head lined with wispy white hairs. Large red eyes blazed contempt from deep sockets, and his mouth hung far lower on his face than any human’s did, making it look like his jaw might snap off in a stiff breeze.
“Well? Answer me!” he said.
“I’m, uh… I’m shoveling.”
Those red eyes didn’t so much as blink.
“Your driveway. For you,” I continued, speaking slower. I hadn’t heard he was an idiot as well as a fiend of hell.
He stepped out from behind the doorway. He wore brown old man pants — “slacks,” my grandpa called them — and a threadbare navy-blue cardigan with sleeves ending far short of his claws. Those claws wrapped around themselves in what appeared to be the demon approximation of clenched fists.
“Do you think I have no powers left? Do you think Molakesh the Destroyer cannot burn the snow from his own driveway? Do you think I cannot rain fire upon this entire worthless town?”
I looked around at the snow-covered houses, at the thick icicles hanging from every eave and the piles of slush that sprayed from the wheels of a passing car. I doubted Satan himself could burn Winslow, Minnesota, down.
“Whatever,” I said, and started back to my house. The essay was sounding better and better.
Those red eyes followed me in silence as I made my way around the piles I’d created and back the way I’d come. I was just about to cross onto our property when Molakesh spoke again.
I sighed. It misted out in front of me. “What? I was just trying to help, you know. Service.”
Molakesh continued to stare. Then: “I believe you humans offer your servants hot chocolate on cold days.”
“I said ‘service’. That doesn’t make me your servant.”
Molakesh made a growling noise in his throat like the rumble of the morning school bus. “You served me, so I’m going to make you hot chocolate. Come here.”
I looked back to my house. I couldn’t see my mom through the blinds. Would she be more upset if I went in the demon’s house or if I refused his offer of hot chocolate? Either way, it could mean incurring her wrath, and now that I was only months away from getting my drivers’ license, she had a more potent threat than essays to lord over me.
“Fine,” I said after a minute. “But on your porch, not in your house. I don’t know what you do in there, but I’m not going to be your child bride or virgin sacrifice or anything. I’m not even a virgin.” That was a lie, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.
He blinked and went back into his house, slamming the door behind him. I crunched back through the snow yet again to his porch. I waited for several minutes, stamping snow from my boots and debating whether a particularly wicked-looking icicle could be used as a demon-slaying weapon if necessary.
The door swung open and Molakesh emerged with two steaming mismatched mugs in his claws. One had the University of Minnesota logo on it and the other a picture of Tweety Bird. He handed me the Tweety Bird one.
I sniffed it, eyeing him warily over the rim of the cup for sudden movements. The drink looked and smelled like hot chocolate. One lone marshmallow floated on top.
“Hal’s store brand,” Molakesh said.
I took a sip. So it was.
Molakesh did not drink his. “You would never do as a sacrifice anyway.”
I frowned. “Why not?”
He pointed at my face with one of his claws. “Your blemish. I like my sacrifices unstained.”
“It’s a birthmark,” I snapped. I got enough crap from kids at school about the dark patch extending from my left cheekbone to the corner of my mouth. I sure as hell didn’t need to take any from some ancient demon.
“I was referring to your acne.”
“Oh.” This probably shouldn’t have made me feel better, but it did.
“You don’t like your birthmark?”
“I don’t have a problem with it. But some of the kids at school do.”
“What do they say about it?”
I scowled down at the hot chocolate. The marshmallow bobbed forlornly on top. “They call me Shit-face.”
Molakesh made an odd noise, which I realized was a chuckle. It turned into a cough, though, and he doubled over against the wooden porch railing, hacking his lungs out. Possibly literally. Something pink and gross flew from his mouth and landed in the snow.
“Are you… are you alright?” My thoughts on icicles as weapons aside, Mom definitely wouldn’t let me get my drivers’ license if Molakesh died as a result of my shoddy conversational skills.
“Yes, yes,” he wheezed. He set his half-spilled mug of hot chocolate on the railing. “I may not have the powers and vigor I once had, but a single laugh at another’s misfortune won’t be the end of me.”
I kind of doubted it. For all his previous ranting on how he would burn down the whole town, just then he looked about as fragile as my grandpa, who Mom kept saying wouldn’t last until the next holiday.
And yet somehow, he always did.
“So you think that’s funny?” I asked.
“What I find amusing is the sheer lack of creativity in children today. I would have taunted you with something so vile, so inescapable, you would have ripped that birthmark from your face with your own hands.” He looked wistful. “But that was in another time.”
I tried to imagine what would possibly inspire that kind of reaction in a person. I supposed Shit-face was rather pedestrian compared to what an actual demon could come up with.
“Maybe you can use that creativity of yours on Katelyn Sams.” She was the worst of them. I wouldn’t mind seeing her rip some of that pretty blonde hair out of her head.
Those too-low lips twisted into a sneer. “I don’t take requests. Especially not from teenagers.” He made the last word sound like a worse epithet than Shit-face.
“It’s not like I was serious,” I muttered. “So do you want me to finish the driveway or not?”
Molakesh regarded me for a moment, then waved a claw dismissively. “If you must.” He picked up the barely-touched mugs of hot chocolate and went back inside, slamming the door behind him.
I hefted my shovel and returned to the driveway, doing the bare minimum needed for that rusty old Cadillac of his to be able to make it to the street. The curtains stirred again as I worked, and I flipped him off before returning home.
Another snowstorm blew in that weekend, and the next Tuesday I was over at Molakesh’s house again with a snow shovel, cursing the icy wind and my mom’s service kick and Katelyn Sams for good measure.
This time Molakesh stood on the porch and glared at me while I worked. He held the University of Minnesota mug. The Tweety Bird mug sat on the railing, the steam tugged away from it by the wind.
I finished and set the shovel against the ice-slick porch steps. “I thought you said you had powers. Rain of fire and all that. So why don’t you ever take care of your own damn driveway?” Mom would kill me if she heard me talk this way to any adult, even a demonic one, but the guy wasn’t exactly bursting with politeness himself.
“You doubt my powers?”
I drank the hot chocolate too fast; it burned my tongue, but warmed my throat nicely. “I guess.”
He stared out over the white landscape. The wind gusted more snow back to where I had just shoveled, but I would write ten essays on service before I was going to shovel his driveway twice in the same day.
Then he held out his right claw, with the sharp points I couldn’t help but think of as fingers curved upwards. A ball of fire appeared, floating inches above in the air. His eyes glowed as bright orange as the fire, though of their own accord or due to the reflected light, I couldn’t say. Even his horns seemed sharper, deadlier.
I took a step back, my eyes wide, as he tossed the fire at the yard with the smooth, practiced motion of a major league pitcher. A trail of flames streaked across the yard as the ball hit, leaving behind a long, deep rut of exposed dirt and blackened grass as the fire died down.
“Whoa,” I said. “That was—”
Molakesh began coughing again like before, only worse. His long-limbed body, which had appeared unnaturally tall and strong only thirty seconds before, sagged in on itself. He collapsed to his knees.
I reached for his arm instinctively, trying to hold him up, but he shoved me back. Hot chocolate splashed out of my mug and melted through the snow on the porch.
“Get away from me,” he growled. Another piece of that disgusting fleshy pink hung from his lips.
“Fine.” I set the mug on the porch next to him and grabbed my shovel.
He pulled himself up to the railing, leaning against it as if that was the only thing holding him up. He stared out at the trail of burned snow. I wasn’t particularly good at reading normal people’s expressions, let alone demons’, but he looked weary. And not just physically.
“That was cool, though,” I called when I reached my own front porch, my gloved hand on the doorknob.
He didn’t make any indication he’d heard me. He just kept staring.
Three gray weeks passed, the snow on the sidewalks and streets packing harder and harder until sheets of treacherous ice slicked over everything. When snow fell once more, bringing a welcome traction on my walk back from school, I passed Molakesh’s house with only a single glance. The snow had filled that burned-out rut in the front yard.
Mom told me to go shovel his driveway again, but I wrote the stupid essay instead. Then I made the mistake of going online. Katelyn and her cronies had created a fake profile for me, where they posted badly spelled rants about how ugly I was, along with photoshopped pictures of me with a steaming turd on my cheek. Half the school had joined in, it seemed, leaving post after vicious post. I wanted to rip up my useless essay on service. Instead, I made myself a cup of hot chocolate and imagined the heat in my hand was an orb of fire.
I imagined the faces of the kids at school who called me Shit-face and left bags of dog poop in my locker. I imagined their terror as the school burned down around them.
“So you’re, like, retired, right? Why did you pick here?” I folded my legs up under me, sitting cross-legged as best as possible in the wicker chair Molakesh had dragged out onto the porch when he saw me walking to school. I would be late, but even hanging out with a creepy old demon was better than first period German. And Frau Witner was so blind, she wouldn’t even notice I wasn’t there. The chair creaked under me as I shifted.
Molakesh glowered at me. “Why can’t you sit like a normal person?”
“What? This is normal. And why can’t you answer a simple question?”
He leaned back in his own wicker chair, his legs crossed almost daintily at the ankles. His cloven goat hooves no longer looked so odd to me, but old man or not, he really needed to do something about those lame brown pants.
“I didn’t pick here. I was sent here. A joke, I suppose. He always had a particularly vile sense of humor.” Molakesh’s claws clinked against the ceramic mug.
I didn’t bother asking who “he” was. Some higher-level demon or Satan himself, it didn’t really matter.
“I am — was — a fire demon, formed from the fiery pits of hell. Born in flame, to die in… this.” He gestured to the bleak snowy landscape. His red eyes glowed dimly, like the last embers twitching under banked coal.
“Winslow’s not so bad.”
“Says Shit-face herself.”
He was right. I hated it here. I shrugged. “I only have a few more years left and then I can leave for college. Maybe go to Arizona. Or Florida, where my dad lives.”
“Your dad who sends you a card for your birthday and Christmas, but otherwise pretends you don’t exist?”
“What, are you going through our mail now?”
His long saggy lips twitched up into a smile. “I don’t need to. I’ve been a demon for hundreds of years. Teenage angst is, as you humans say, our ‘bread and butter.’ “
I sipped more hot chocolate. He’d added some cinnamon this time, which tasted weird. But I didn’t want to go to school yet, so I sat and drank.
“So what do retired demons do anyway? There has to be more to your life than making hot chocolate and annoying me.”
“Sadly, not much.”
“Really? Don’t you occasionally, you know, cause strife in the hearts of man? Maybe a curse or two every once in awhile?” I pictured Katelyn Sams again, her perfectly arched eyebrows falling off in the middle of cheer practice. Or maybe growing thick and bushy, turning into two fat, squirming caterpillars above her blue eyes. I smiled into my hot chocolate.
“Let me guess. You have a few names in mind?”
“Maybe,” I said, trying to sound casual.
“Too bad. You’ll have to take your own revenge, as pathetic as that will likely be. I am no longer in possession of my former powers. All I have left is what I showed you, a mere hint of my previous glory. I am a useless shell, left out here to perish. In Minnesota.” He swirled the liquid around in his mug. He wasn’t drinking much today. He could probably use something a whole lot stronger than Hal’s hot chocolate.
“I don’t know. That fireball was pretty sweet.” I didn’t know why I wanted to comfort Molakesh. He was a demon, after all. The Destroyer. Who knew what kind of horrible crap he’d pulled in his undoubtedly long lifetime? But I kept thinking of my grandpa, a husk of a man being spoon-fed pudding by a nurse while blankly watching “The Price is Right” on a flickering old TV.
“Would you like it?” That horned head swiveled up from regarding the mug in his claws, his red eyes fixed intently on me.
“A fireball? What the hell would I do with a fireball?” I tried to push down the fiendish satisfaction I’d taken in imagining the school in flames, my poop-stinking locker reduced to ashes.
“Whatever you wish. The power of demon fire would be yours to control. You are young, fresh. It would be more powerful in you than even I could produce. Just a one-time use, mind you. You are human, after all. More than that would kill you.”
I eyed the patch of yard where the deep rut in the ground was buried under snow. Then I stood up. The wicker chair creaked again, as if glad to be free of my weight. “I’m late for school.”
“Enjoy your day, Shit-face.”
My gloved hands clenched into fists. “Why would you give me something like that anyway?”
He stared at me, unblinking. “Because I have no one else to give anything to.”
I sighed, watching the mist of my chocolate-scented breath puff out in the icy air. “So how will I know how to use it?”
I could feel Molakesh’s fireball burning somewhere deep within my chest, a warmth bordering on the uncomfortable, except when I was outside and it was better than the best goose-down coat. It burned in me as I passed Katelyn and her sheep climbing into their new cars to drive home. It burned in me as I discovered that she and her friends had cut the bottom out of my backpack, forcing me to awkwardly carry my books the whole walk home. It burned in me as I slipped and fell on the ice, scattering books and papers all around me into the snow.
I held the fire close to my heart, imagining.
As I turned the corner onto my block, I noticed Molakesh’s front door was open. Wind gusted it back and forth, and had knocked over the wicker chairs left out front from our conversation two days before.
“Molakesh?” I called, climbing the steps to the porch. I pushed the door all the way open with my shoulder, my arms full of wet books. “You okay?”
I walked in, trailing slush onto the ugly gray shag carpet. The air was as cold inside as out. I eyed a mirror hanging above a plain wooden entryway table. My birthmark looked redder than usual, angrier.
I set my books down on the table and walked into the living room. The only furniture sitting there was a threadbare, patched armchair in front of one of those ancient blocky TVs. Eerily similar to my grandpa’s set-up in the nursing home, except for one thing.
Molakesh had candles of all sizes and colors, on every surface. None were lit, but the wicks were all blackened with use, and puddles of cold wax coated the carpet, the top of the TV, the kitchen table. He may have been a demon, but I knew instinctively the candles weren’t for any satanic ritual. They were a reminder. A pitiful attempt of used-up demon in a northern Minnesotan winter to surround himself with flame.
An empty pot sat on the stove. Two packets of Hal’s hot chocolate lay on the counter next to it, along with our two mugs. Cleaned and waiting.
The only thing keeping my insides unfrozen was the ball of fire in my chest, flickering uncertainly.
“Molakesh?” I called again, though I knew there would be no answer, even before I found his body lying unmoving and cold in the twin-sized bed in the center of his otherwise empty bedroom. Empty except, of course, for dozens of unlit candles lining the walls. His eyes were open to the white ceiling, the red in them completely gone.
A one-time use, Molakesh had said of the gift he’d given me. I thought one last wistful time of Katelyn Sams and her cronies coming out of the school, their mocking laughter turned to screams as flames erupted from my hands and torched her shiny new car right there in the parking lot. I thought of them sobbing and running and never daring to so much as look at me ever again.
Winslow sucked, but I would leave it all behind one day. I’d leave behind Shit-face, leave behind essay-writing punishments and bell peppers with dinner, leave behind winters that stretched on endlessly.
And now Molakesh could, too.
The fire came to me when I wished it, just as Molakesh had said it would. A ball of flame hovered above my hand. I wasn’t practiced at throwing like he’d been, but it didn’t seem to matter. When the fireball hit his body, the flames erupted upward, blackening the ceiling, spreading outward to catch the carpeting.
The heat seared my face and choked me, but I stayed just long enough to see his body totally consumed in flame. Before I left the house, I grabbed the two mugs and carried them home on top of my pile of books. I was halfway back to my house when I heard the massive crack of the bedroom collapsing in on itself.
I called 911 when I got home, then microwaved myself a cup of hot chocolate. Mom wouldn’t be home from work for another hour or so yet, so she’d miss the show. The wail of approaching sirens sounded as I settled myself onto our porch with the Tweety Bird mug. I watched the flames shoot upwards from my demon neighbor’s house, gorgeous threads of red and orange against a gray winter sky.
Molakesh would have liked it.