Jamie Simon is about to discover that her new eBay purchase will bring her much more than she bargained for.
You Get What You Pay For
Since the semester ended, I'd spent the first part of summer break searching for the most obscure and offbeat items I could dig up on eBay. Most of them bored me. Assorted preserved medical oddities, been there, done that. Fake shrunken heads and Fiji mermaids, yawn. Where was the good stuff?
Today, I was looking for weird jewelry. I clicked around until I saw this listing:
"Rare Original Sumerian Ancient Bronze Prayer Relic of Devoted Intent Artifact One of a Kind!!" proclaimed the long-winded title.
"Not jewelry, they listed this wrong," I grumbled. It drives me crazy when people deliberately miscategorize their items.
"This is for one (1) Sumerian Ancient Relic of Devoted Intent, very old and truly a statement item. Found during excavation in Kuwait, this decorative piece dates to Early Bronze Age. Measures 2.5" x 3.5", inscribed with cuneiform of the period."
I doubted it was real, but even if it was just a replica, it was still an interesting conversation piece.
There were no bids. I'd just cut the check for the rent, and grocery shopping was out of the way. And I had a little bit of birthday money from my dad left over.
"C'mon Jamie, that's a pretty good deal, and you won't find anything like it in some museum gift shop," said the voice in my mind that loves justifying poor money choices.
Fine, I'll Buy It Now for $45.00 and worry about the electric bill later.
A week later, the innocent-looking package arrived, and trouble began.
You know those cheap, pink disposable razors? They suck, and it's not because they're pink or because I have a problem with personal care items that are aggressively gender-specifically marketed.
It's because no matter how careful I am, and no matter how liberally I apply shaving cream (but not that overpriced perfumey crap for women because I should draw a line somewhere), I always end up slashing an artery. I guess I should have expected as much from dollar store razors.
Rivulets of blood ran down my leg and swirled down the drain, and then wailing guitars screamed up through the floorboards. My fifty-year-old, full-time, stay-at-home drunk neighbor Greg was at it again.
My stomach sank when I saw his mother pull out of the driveway. He'd have the apartment all to himself so he could drink himself to ruin and relive his hair metal glory days.
"Fucker! I wish he'd just die already," I said.
Appeals to him in person hadn't helped, and neither had kindly worded letters. The next step was calling the police on a noise complaint. I was this close but I always chickened out because I didn't want to be that neighbor.
Something heavy clanked to the floor in the TV room while I rummaged around the towel cabinet for the styptic powder. My "relic of intent" had fallen to the floor, probably excited by my neighbor's one-man party. It liked to randomly slide off the computer desk as if it were trying to make a point or something.
I finished getting dressed and wandered downstairs to ask Greg to turn it down. Finally, he answered the door, his unshaven face twisted into a scowl.
"Hi Greg, could you please turn down the music a bit? I have to get some work done-"
"Fffaaack you," he slurred and slammed the door in my face. I stomped back upstairs to my headphones and a white noise app.
A few hours later, I went to check the mail. Greg's mother was crying outside while EMTs loaded a covered gurney into an ambulance.
"He was a troubled boy, so many problems," she wept.
And that's how Greg met his ignoble end. He got wasted on Miller Genuine Draft, lost his balance and bashed his skull open on the tile kitchen floor. His mother found him when she came home with the groceries. At least he died doing what he loved.
I sat in front of the reassuring glow of the computer screen with a mug of Earl Grey tea. The clock on the monitor read 2:14 am, so I had about 46 minutes of job and roommate searching until Bam Bam showed up to ruin my night.
Bam Bam was the nickname I gave to the poltergeist, for lack of a better word, but it was as close to an accurate description as I was going to get. It did all the classic things a poltergeist has ever been accused of doing.
My roommate had moved out the week before because she couldn't take the banging on the walls anymore. I wondered if she'd been bitten on the ass in the shower too, but I'd probably never know. Now that she was gone, I was stuck dealing with it alone, since nobody else in our building heard any of the unusual noises.
Minutes ticked on. I busied myself composing an ad on craigslist, though I knew it would only be a matter of time before Bam Bam made him or herself known.
At 2:52, a faint tremor rippled across the apartment. I white-knuckled the keyboard shelf.
"Shit!" I thought, looking all around like I expected to see Bam Bam in the flesh.
Another tremor rocked the apartment.
"Oh crap," I whispered. Even though I knew it was coming, I still jumped out of my skin when Bam Bam started his act.
"Gj0.sivfejsf;;zlruawea[-wegv,mexr\ckm*yeeja >K" appeared across the screen.
"What the hell?" I snatched my hands away from the keyboard as quick as if I'd discovered a spider skittering across it. Bam Bam banged once on the wall above the desk. The wall mirror jumped.
"Oh no, oh God, it's in my computer!" I said.
Bam Bam pounded twice. More gibberish appeared on the screen.
I pushed myself away from the desk. "What the hell? What is that?"
"I should have moved," I said. "Oh, why didn't I move when I had the chance? What do you want, anyway?"
I don't know what was more bizarre at that point— that I was convinced it was trying to communicate with me, or I was having a conversation with it instead of leaving immediately.
"Why does it say key twice?" I said. BANG came the most resounding wall slam Bam Bam had yet to date. The mirror slid off the wall and shattered into a million shards. I flew out of my swivel chair.
"GIVEs=ejME;lf;BACKfe]jMYwfKEY!!!" the screened flickered.
I stood there like an idiot. "What? What the hell is going on?!"
"GIVEjhMEfrBACKplMY.6KEY!" it glared.
"Why does it keep saying key? What is key, what key?"
I squeezed behind the desk and yanked the power cord out of the surge suppressor. Any second my heart was going to gallop out of my chest.
The words glowed and hovered on the black screen.
"I don't have your key, what are you talking about?"
"THE RELIC! IT BELONGS TO ME, IDIOT!"
I grabbed the relic and raced outside.
I know I shouldn't have been driving, but I floored it in my old Saturn all the way to Dad's house. It was quarter past 3 in the morning and all the lights were out. If I let myself in, his girlfriend would probably come flying at me out of the darkness like a winged devil.
What would I tell them anyway, that my eBay mystery item had attracted some entity that was now living inside my computer?
Moths swarmed around the street light I was parked under. While I sat debating what to do, a few tiny ones flew in through the car's open window.
I swatted them away but more flew in. My AC had broken down a few weeks earlier and it was either get it repaired or not pay rent. I hadn't counted on the university library cutting my hours. At least I still had gas in my car.
One of the moths wedged itself between the windshield and the dash. I leaned over the steering wheel to whisk it out the window but I accidentally leaned on the horn. A single, whiny BEEEP pierced the dark stillness.
An upstairs light blinked on. I saw shadows moving around the room but the window was shut and I couldn't hear anything. Then one of the downstairs lights came on. Dad's girlfriend Bethany appeared in the bay window.
"Oh, seriously?" I said. "I wish that woman would just get lost."
A mosquito buzzed around my ear and landed on my arm.
"You too, go away!" I slapped her into a dead smear but it was too late. She'd already bitten me and filled her belly.
I looked up. Bethany was gone.
Just then a Polyphemus moth—one of those big ones with the eyespots on the wings—fluttered in and started getting in my face. Every moth in the vicinity decided to join him. They poured in through the open window before I could close it.
It was like a scene from The Birds except it was moths of every species. I catapulted out of the car and sprinted down the street to a 24-hour coffee shop, the moths trailing behind me like a messed-up insect version of the Pied Piper. I wanted to scream but I had to cover my mouth with my hands so they wouldn't fly in.
They slammed into the shop's Plexiglas windows, leaving dusty beige smears all over the panes.
"Whoa," said the guy behind the counter. "Whoa, did you see all those things?"
"Yeah." Didn't you fucking see them chasing me?
"It looked like they were following you. Freakin' weird," he said.
"Yeah, definitely weird." If you only knew.
I ordered an extra-large iced tea, grabbed some real estate guides and slid into a booth to wait for my heart rate to slow down.
The relic looked out of place, sitting on Donut Paradise's speckled Formica table next to my giant plastic cup of iced tea.
"You should have known when you read the packing invoice," said my intrusive, know-it-all voice of reason.
"Thank you for taking this off my hands!" said the loopy cursive scrawled across the slip. "Absolutely no refunds or returns."
I turned the object over. The tangy, metallic odor mixed with the sweat on my palms. Maybe it's just a paperweight.
"It's not a just paperweight," the voice chimed in again. I shut her up with an impatient sigh. Thanks, dummy, what was your first clue? I hated that voice, because she was usually right.
What was it, then? At first, I had an idea it might be wax seal. After it arrived in the mail, I gave it to people my dad knows in the classical and ancient art history department at Westwood University to look at. Dad's an English professor there, but I figured it'd be worth a shot.
They'd passed it on to each other like a hot potato until they returned it to me, mystified. They never identified the script on it. The only thing they could agree on was that it was authentic.
A few of them told me it could have been used during rituals. Most of the time, when researchers said something was used in a ritual, I suspected what they meant was "we have no idea."
There was something else.
"Jamie," said Dr. Beth Coburn—one of Dad's colleagues— "whatever this thing is, it gave me a serious case of the weirdies."
I laughed when she said that, but then again, I'm not exactly the most spiritually sensitive person. But neither were these people.
The strangest thing of all was that nobody wanted it. Ordinarily, if something was one-of-a-kind, like my mystery object, it would make its way to a collection somewhere. In my mind, I heard Indiana Jones growling "It belongs in a museum!"
I thought of calling the famous demonologist Lorraine Warren to see what she had to say but decided against it because of the possibility of too much bad publicity. I'm sure P.T. Barnum would have disagreed with that last part.
When the sun peeked over the horizon, I reluctantly peeled myself off the vinyl seat to see what awaited me back at the apartment.
The temperature was already climbing into the high 80s on the drive home. The windows were still rolled up since I wasn't taking my chances with any other creatures who might try to fly inside my car.
"Dammit, I wish my AC worked. This is going to be a long summer."
A squirrel darted out into the street. I put on the brakes but *thump* it was too late.
A wave of nausea rolled over me.
"Ugh! Sorry, little guy!" I glanced in the rear view. He was nothing but a bloody, gray-furred blot in the middle of Pleasant Street.
The AC blasted on.
"No fucking way. How did that happen?" I held my hand in front of the vent, the air cooling my damp palm. "Wow. Hope it stays on."
When I got back to my place, I stood outside my front door for 20 minutes, waffling between kicking it open, SWAT team style, or sneaking in on stealth mode. The air still reeked of Greg's stale cigarette smoke.
I crept inside, expecting someone or something to jump out at me. Everything seemed normal. The computer was still unplugged. But I knew that Bam Bam was lurking around somewhere behind the blank screen.
My cell phone rang, jarring my nerves and the empty quiet of the apartment.
"Hi Dad," I said. "Why, what do you mean? Nothing's wrong with my voice. Yeah, I was parked out front, no it's fine, I just needed to get away from here, that's all. What? Yeah? No, she isn't here, I haven't seen her. And then she didn't come back upstairs to bed? That's so strange. Her car is still there, and her phone? Did you guys have a fight? You don't think she might have just gone out for a walk? No Dad, you need to report it to the police, because...no you don't have to wait 24 hours, that's just on TV...oh wow...but you don't know that, don't say that. Let me know as soon as possible if you hear anything."
Bethany had disappeared without a trace, still wearing her pajamas. I didn't like her, but it was worse hearing my father so upset.
I took the relic out of my purse and placed it on top of the computer desk. The screen flickered to life.
"Did you enjoy the moths?" it asked.
"No! Who are you?" I asked in a low voice.
"What business is that of yours?" said the screen.
My heart raced. "Because I want to know who's been pounding on my walls and everything."
"I go by many names, but I do not like the one you have given me."
"The key, or the relic or whatever it is. Why do you want it so badly?" I asked.
"Stupid human. You do not yet realize its power."
I picked up the relic and traced my thumb over the jagged lines crisscrossing its surface. "What does it do?"
Laughter rolled through the apartment. "Did you not read the description when you bought it?"
I stared at the screen. "It said it was a relic of devoted intent, whatever that is, but nobody at the university agreed that's what it was. They'd never seen it before and they said people in that culture didn't make stuff like this."
"That is because it did not come from any culture but my own, and no person made it," said the screen. "I did."
I breathed in the heavy air to ease away nausea and the dull pain across my forehead. "Where did you come from?"
"Ridiculous human! You ask too many questions. If it is more answers you desire, you will follow my instructions."
"I just want you to stop pounding on my walls," I said. "And biting me in the shower! I wish you'd just go away!"
More sinister laughter echoed off the apartment's walls. "It does not work that way, ignorant woman. You have not figured it out yet. I am a little surprised."
"Then tell me, please!" I said. "I don't even want it anymore! If I give it back, will you go away?"
"I shall gladly take it off your hands before you cause any more mischief," said the screen. "Although watching you muddle your way through the past few days had been great entertainment for me!"
Before you cause any more mischief. "What are you talking about?" Clamminess crept over my skin despite the muggy heat of the room.
"Think about it," said the screen. "Have you had any strange coincidences that have served you well lately?"
Scenes of the recent weird events played out in my mind.
Greg on the gurney.
The miraculously resurrected AC.
Dad's missing girlfriend.
"Oh my freaking God, it grants wishes, doesn't it? So, you—you're a genie?"
"If that is what you want to call me. But you are wasting my time. You will return my property to me. This will not take long if you are capable of following directions."
"Fine, you can have it. Just please tell me your name," I said.
"You will call me Loustrobaas. I only tell you because you need it to invite me in."
I shivered in the oppressive heat of the third floor as he detailed what he expected me to do.
I spread the pink plastic razor, a sheet of paper and the relic on the floor in front of the computer. Loustrobaas expressed his disappointment that I was unable to get an actual lambskin and that I needed to use plain white copy paper instead but agreed that nothing could be done about it. He was also annoyed about having to delay the ritual until the next day because I got called into work.
"Repeat the writing that appears before you," said Loustrobaas' words through the screen. "Speak loudly."
I took a deep breath and recited the words. "Loustrobaas, divine spirit of intention and desire, I appeal to you and ask you to join me now. I invite you to cross the threshold of the earthly plane."
So far, nothing was happening. It was quiet except for the whirr of the box fan.
"I use the blade to release the blood," said the screen, "and so I release you from the tethers that bind you to your realm."
Again, I recited the words. It didn't even sound like my voice.
I picked a spot to draw the blood that would be inconspicuous—behind one of my knees. Loustrobaas insisted it needed to be my own blood, enough to coat the relic on both sides.
I sat on the floor, leg outstretched, and braced myself, guiding the razor very slowly. Four times I started to trace the razor along the site and couldn't bring myself to do it. Sweat slicked my forehead despite the fan aimed at my face.
"Hurry," urged the screen. "Do it now or you never will!"
"Don't rush me! I can't do this; it's going to hurt!"
"You are acting like a fool," said Loustrobaas. "Finish the summoning NOW, or I may find a home inside your body instead of your computer."
"What! You can't do that, can you?"
"Look how far I can already project myself into your world without being physically present," said the screen.
"NO!" I reached down to make the incision.
Just as I nicked the back of my knee, somebody pounded on the door. It startled me into giving myself a two-inch gash. I gasped and grabbed my leg. The razor clattered to the floor.
"Jamie, let me in! I'm here with some police officers; they just want to talk to you for a few minutes."
I froze. It was my dad.
"Ignore him," commanded Loustrobaas. "Continue!"
"Jamie Simon, we can hear you in there, so open the door," said an unfamiliar voice. "This is the police. We need to speak with you."
Blood ran between my fingers as I pressed the wound closed. "I have to let them in," I whispered to the monitor.
"NO!" flared the screen.
They pounded on the door and called my name.
"Finish what you are doing; you are wasting the blood! Make the stamp now!" the screen said.
I rubbed my blood on the first side of the relic and pressed it onto the copy paper.
"Jamie, are you hurt in there? What are you doing?" Dad called.
"If she doesn't answer, we're going to have to force the door open," said one of the cops.
I held my breath and pressed the other side of the relic onto the paper, arranging the stamped impressions exactly as he had described while trying not to smear it with my trembling hands.
They banged on the door. "Miss Simon!"
Go away, go away.
"Finish reciting the words," glared Loustrobaas through the monitor.
"Loustrobaas, please accept my gift which flows for you to receive. I ask in humility and respect for you to accept this declaration of intent and enter this realm." I spoke the words so low that I figured Loustrobaas would probably scold me for it when he arrived.
The stamps glowed like embers and then darkened to ash. Acrid smelling smoke rose from the paper in lazy wisps.
A ghastly silence smothered the room. I didn't know if Dad and the police had stopped knocking and shouting or if the silence had blotted out the noise. My insides were jelly.
"I am not pleased that you think my key is only worth forty-five of your American dollars!" thundered a voice behind me.
"Loustrobaas?" I said in a voice limper than a dead fish.
"Who else would it be?" he said.
I don't know what I expected. He looked like an ordinary person sitting there on my couch like he came over to watch a movie or something.
"Jamie! Who is in there with you? Are you all right? Answer me!" Dad yelled.
"Dad, I'm fine, just a sec." I kicked the paper and the razor under the couch. Loustrobaas had already pocketed his key.
I opened the door. My father and the police officers spilled into my apartment.
"You're bleeding!" Dad grimaced at my smeared and sticky hands. Blood still leaked out from behind my knee.
"I was shaving. It's OK."
Loustrobaas was gone.
"We heard another voice in here; who else is in here with you?" asked the officer.
Loustrobaas strolled out of my bedroom with Bethany. She was still wearing her pajamas.
Dad's face blanched. "Bethany? Where have you been? I reported you as a missing person!"
"Who's this guy?" asked Dad.
"Ma'am, are you Bethany Richards?" asked the older cop.
Bethany confirmed that she was and that she was in good health and acting of her own volition.
"I'll be by to get my things, Patrick," she said to Dad. "It's nothing personal. Things just weren't going to work out between the two of us."
She strolled right past my father, her arms around Loustrobaas, out of the apartment.
"Don't you think we should talk about this?" Dad called down the stairs. He turned to me. "Has she been here the whole time?"
"No, she hasn't. I didn't know anything about this, I swear!"
He ran his hands through his graying hair. "I don't get it, everything was fine. She left, I can't believe she left! What was she doing here, anyway?" He had a sheen of sweat on his face like he was about to go into heart failure.
"Dad, I swear, I don't know. But I need a Band-Aid!"
"Well, this was not what I was expecting," said the younger cop.
"I guess we can safely conclude that she is no longer a missing person," said the other cop.
They left, after giving Dad a stern warning to make sure missing people are actually missing before reporting them as such, and Mr. Simon, you could be in serious trouble the next time for filing false reports.
Meanwhile, Dad sputtered and wrung his hands. The devastated look on his face was like he'd just found out the person he loved the most eats babies.
Loustrobaas and I were sitting in the same booth at Donut Paradise the night I had my run in with the moths a week earlier.
"I can't believe you stole my father's girlfriend."
He flashed a wicked grin. "She would not be the first to succumb to my charms."
"Loustrobaas, I need to know something. How in the world did your key end up on eBay?"
He sipped his coffee. "It was stolen by someone who thought he could hide it from me. He was too cowardly and stupid to appreciate what it can do. And then you came along, although you were a slight disappointment."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You started off strong and then you delved into pettiness," said Loustrobaas. "Air conditioning?"
I frowned. "Hey, I practically gave you my father's girlfriend! Not deliberately, but still. And anyways, you sicced a bunch of moths on me!"
He stared at me with strange, dusk-colored eyes that reflected nothing but seemed to absorb everything, like nighttime falling. A phantom smile crossed his face. "You still have more questions."
I scratched at the scab on the back of my knee. "Why do you call it a key?"
"Because it unlocks the desires of those who try to possess it," he said. "And because it can unlock the doorway between the realm of humankind and the spirit world. What kind of a demon would I be if I did not create a failsafe on my key that allows me to cross into your realm, in case it fell into incompetent hands?"
Loustrobaas and I went our separate ways and I never saw him again. When I started up the car, the AC blasted on but went dead a moment later. I knew it was too good to be true.
At least Greg stayed dead.