The Devil I Know
I had never given much thought to the idea of the afterlife. Rather, I’d never liked to give it much thought. It actually did occupy quite a few of my idle musings, even if I might have wished that weren’t the case. The churning cogs in my unquiet mind turned restlessly to the subject every now and again, wondering if maybe that supposed afterlife could provide the second chance I needed.
These thoughts hounded my brain as I rode the empty train. It’d been dark out for a while by this point and our town didn’t receive much traffic even during the day, so the bare seats beside me were no unusual sight. In a way those empty spaces were actually kind of comforting. The route had always been safe, but it was still nice not to have to worry about other people. During our phone call back at the station my mother had been quick to remind me that, “A girl out this late needs to stay on her toes.” Huh. Maybe that’s why my brain was currently fixating on the afterlife: Fear of impending death. Well whatever, this was hardly my first time back from a day trip in the city. Besides, I enjoyed the nighttime. Darkness and quiet can be nice. Or they would be nice if I weren’t so stuck in my own head. Silence is useless when your brain won’t shut up.
I said fear of death, but thinking on it more that’s not exactly the correct descriptor. Truthfully it’s more like a fear of wasted life. Yes, I know that I have time. I’m 14 years old and a first year in high school so I can probably expect another solid 6 or 7 decades. But you can never be 100 percent certain that you’ll actually get what you expect. Anything can happen. And before anything does happen I’d like to have done something worth something. Made friends, made memories, impacted lives and all that. Not just been the quiet girl no one talked to. Plus I’m turning 15 in like a month, so, honestly, y’know time really does just keep chugging along. Like a train. That I’m on. Hah.
I suppose that might be why my view so often turned towards the afterlife. Just the concept itself helps take a lot of the sting out of death as an end state. Eases the pressure. Instead death is now a waypoint, a transition which marks the end of “Life Part One,” and the beginning of “Life Part Two: This Time It’s Forever.” Depending on what you believe, of course. Instead it could be “Life Part Infinity,” as you constantly reincarnate.
Reincarnation sounds preferable to me. It doesn’t have to be the whole reborn in a fantasy RPG type of deal either. Just having another round somewhere else in this world would be good. Reroll your entire character, hair, skin, and eyes. New location, new family, new friends, I mean you could be an entirely different species. I could be a rabbit. That could be fun. Although I have heard that the goal with reincarnation is to escape the cycle of reincarnation. Or something? So maybe it’s not that fun. What part of you would actually continue on anyway? If nothing is the same, then aren’t you just a different person?
I breathed a sigh out into the night air. Afterlife talk once again proved a cold comfort. Hanging my hopes on a life after life always felt like a non-starter. It’s a morbid hamster wheel of mental exercise that keeps my inner voice trapped running and running without destination. No point in worrying about it now, cross that bridge when you get there.
But I do worry about it. And wonder. And question. And hope. I hope it’s good, whatever the arrangement. Whether it’s joyful reunions or continual renewal. For the people who deserve it, I guess. Not that I get to be the arbiter of that kind of thing. I’d prefer a kind of karmic system, I think. No judge, just some cosmic universal force thing that automatically does whatever needs doing. Wait. That might be worse. There’s no reasoning with automated services. And honestly, whether it’s good or bad, the idea of forever sounds impossibly long. Forever is, like, all of the time that exists and ever will exist. Spent floating around or whatever. I suppose that’s why you would want to escape the cycle of reincarnation.
Okay then, take out the middle steps. What if there’s just nothing? What if you die and it just ends and that’s all there is? No continues, cut to credits. Wow, yeah. Nope. That is the scary one. We are stopping this now.
Luckily, I had long ago developed proficiency in sedating my brain by manner of the inconsequential. Nobody wants to listen to me blather on incessantly, least of all me. At school I’m quiet. At home I’m quiet. The inside of my head is generally less quiet, but I’m working on it. It can be hard to stop once it’s gotten started. Still, if I could at least pretend to be normal, everything would be okay. Cool it with the big words. You talk like you ate a thesaurus. There’s no need to prove how smart you are. Drop the two-bit philosophy and calm down.
I tried to relax a bit, focusing in on the banalities of the space around me. The humming of the train car as it sped along. The already chill night air, made slightly colder by the on-board ac system. The slightly scratchy, oddly patterned fabric seat I sat on. The brightly colored advertisements for drinks and mobile games that I was already choosing to forget. Dangling emptily above me slept rounded handles meant for the grips of standing passengers. Bare too, were the shiny metal poles and handrails, as they stood bereft of passengers to steady. Truly, I was alone. I began to drift into the pleasant fog of non-introspection.
Until my mind snapped me back. A sentence shot out at me fully formed from the dark. “Why pretend to be something I’m not?” With my stark white hair and my deathly pale skin I’d always stood out. Not in a good way either. Yeah people didn’t make fun of me anymore, and maybe my personality fading into the background had helped accomplish that. But. Maybe that’s not okay. Maybe I don’t want that. Maybe I’d rather be more than just benignly ignored. True, people were more pleasant now. Some had even apologized for past incidents. Yet something was still keeping me from having real relationships with them. Maybe this was it? The beige wallpaper façade I’d developed to keep myself below notice had worked too well. Isolated me from my peers. Made me unapproachable. That could be it.
Or maybe they just didn’t like me. Maybe I’m just bad and dumb and look weird and no one wants to be my friend. Okay, stop. Come on, snap out of it. Focus on the train. The ceiling, the floor, the win—
The blackened windows reflected my own spectral image back at me, superimposed over the darkened landscape rushing past. There she is. Well, the top half anyways. My head practically glowed in the reflection. Dark glasses covered up bright blue eyes, paired with skin white as paper and short colorless hair that stopped just above the chin. Black blazer buttoned up all the way, coupled with a black ribbon bowtie around my neck. The white collared shirt that peaked out from underneath was barely a shade lighter than my skin.
My eyes are my one good feature but even they’re still trapped behind absurdly thick glasses. The only part of my appearance that I actually like can't function properly without outside assistance. Ugh. I look like a ghost. A nerd ghost. The ghost of a big nerd who nobody likes. Well, a small nerd. I’m not very tall.
I hugged my backpack closer to my chest, pulling it up slightly from where it rested on my lap and subtly crunching the contents within. The dark fabric of my skirt rustled gently from the movement. Atop the monochrome canvas of my body the bag now sat as beacon; a soft, bright blue that matched my eyes. At times my mom had suggested buying a purse of the same color, but the practicality of a backpack simply weighed more heavily in my estimation. I fiddled with the keychain attached to the zipper’s pull. A small, fluffy rabbit no more than an inch and a half tall. I glanced down at the adorable little red-eyed creature and smiled slightly. If nothing else, you prove I can sometimes make good decisions. My backpack is both practical and cute. Best of both worlds.
In some ways I envied the small bun. Of course a white hare can pull off white hair better than I can. I suppose if it bothers me so much I could dye my hair, although a certain parent of mine might not be thrilled. The glasses could be swapped for contacts but those always seemed like a hassle. As for the skin… it might be worth it to get really good at makeup? Hmm. Ultimately though, I don’t think that would be enough. I’m me, and will continue to be me no matter how I look. Sure the outside draws attention but the real problem is how the inside responds to that, right? Perhaps I should be embracing it. Revel in my own uniqueness. Be able to like myself for my self. Ugh. That’s easier said than done.
Plus, if I suddenly got a big dramatic makeover all of the people in my life would immediately realize that I had reshaped myself to try and better fit their standards. That’s a level of desperation I don’t want to give off. Besides, some people like glasses. Nerds are cool now. There are even people who wear fake glasses as a fashion thing. I don’t personally understand it, but that’s fine. Nobody cares, everything’s good.
Wow, was this train ride always this long? I feel like it was not usually this long. I reached into my bag to grab my phone, having suddenly remembered that technology exists and people therefore never have to not be distracted. Also to check the time. 12:12 AM. Huh. Neat. As I placed my phone back I noticed a new shape out of the corner of my eye. A shape I somehow hadn’t seen before. There was another girl on the train.
For a moment my blood ran cold. How had I missed her? It’s not like she was hiding. Was I really that lost in thought? Apparently my mother was entirely correct when she told me I needed to be more careful while traveling. Could I actually be this unobservant? Great. Yet another point to add to my ever-growing list of imperfections. Sure, I need glasses but I’m not supposed to be blind. In either the literal or the social sense. Taking this long to become aware of another person in such close proximity spoke to a level of self-absorption that I found highly concerning. My own embarrassment warmed me back up again. At least there wasn’t any danger in this slip up.
She seemed to be about my age, maybe a little older. Definitely a lot prettier. Her face was sharp, and her eyes half-lidded. Straight black hair spilled like ink down her head, collecting into voluminous pools that tapered off around her shoulders. She wore the same school uniform as I did, but omitted the blazer and switched out the ribbon for a black tie. Even though she was sitting down I could tell she was tall.
Despite our shared uniforms I’d never seen her before. That isn’t particularly unusual at first blush, after all it’s not like I know everyone at school. However, I felt like I should have recognized her. Or at the bare minimum I should have heard about her, considering… well. She had horns.
Horns. Horns! Horns? Horns.
There were, in fact, two large horns erupting straight up out of the left and right sides of her head. Pure white. The horn on her left side looked as smooth as marble. The other was broken at the end. Yes, broken was the word, not evenly cut but cragged as though it had been snapped off with blunt force. They appeared startlingly real. Admittedly, she could have just been a dedicated cosplayer. Of what character, I wouldn’t know.
My nosiness got the best of me. What can I say? Although at times I might attempt to be incurious, I am curious by nature. I wobbled slightly as I stood up, arms still clutching my backpack. My legs buzzed faintly as they shook off their slumber. Then they slid me over to a seat next to her. By which I mean a seat across from her. I didn’t want to be overly forward.
The girl had not yet turned to face me. Perhaps she was also lost in thought. Mayhap this could this be a likeminded fellow? Wow, yeah. No. Don’t talk like that out loud please. This is a new person. Try not to ruin things instantly.
“Um. Hi!” I managed to choke out. Higher and louder than I would have preferred.
She shifted slowly to gaze in my direction. Her eyes were a bright, powdery red. If they’d been even a couple shades lighter, they’d be pink. Huh.
“Hello,” she replied.
Her voice was softer than I expected. A low rumble, warm, but tinged with sadness. Sadness? Was that right? She may have just been bored. There was a slight downward inflection to her speech, as though the words themselves were heavy. Her facial expression wasn’t giving me much to work off. But, this was my moment to be bold. Here was a whole new person that didn’t know me who I could maybe, possibly, have be my friend. I had to try. It was too late to back out anyway.
“So, we go to the same high school. I think.”
“Oh,” her eyes flicked briefly to my uniform, “I’m actually starting tomorrow. New transfer.”
“Ah. So then, slight correction to my previous statement: we will be going to the same high school as of tomorrow.”
“Yep,” the slight raise of an eyebrow accompanied this short syllable.
“Ha ha,” I offered meekly.
I am a disaster. As I attempted to find anything which might further our conversation, my eyes darted nervously across the train car. I’d blanked out hard enough that only our immediate surroundings could come to mind. I was nearly about to start off on a tangent about train seats and handrails when she suddenly spoke. Her taking the initiative was almost a relief, but the new edge in her voice stamped that feeling out immediately.
“Yes. The horns are real. No. It’s not cosplay. I’m not a demon, or a devil, or a yokai or an alien or anything other than a normal human. No, it’s not related to any known medical conditions like cutaneous horns, or warts or moles or anything. I don’t know why I have them and neither do the doctors. If that’s all you wanted to know then now you know.”
Her glare was searing. And I’m not just saying that because she has red eyes, although if I’m being perfectly candid that might have been a partial factor. I was stunned. My heart rate had gone through the roof. The search for fun, flighty dialogue prompts in my brain had come to a screeching halt as all processing power now diverted to merely keeping my breathing relatively steady. I think she noticed how scared I looked because her expression softened. She leaned forward and then slumped back into her seat as though her whole body were sighing.
“The eyes are real too, by the way… I always forget to mention the eyes on the first go. No vision problems. Just red.”
There’s weariness to her voice now. She closes her eyes and cranes her neck back to rest her head against the top of the seat. Arms sprawled out around her, palms to the sky.
“Feel free to tell everyone at school so I won’t have to,” she says.
For a moment silence fills the air.
“H-hey,” I stammer, “I’m sorry if I upset you—“
“No, no, it’s fine. I’m just wound up.” She sighed. “New school jitters, am I right?”
“Yeah,” I replied, hugging my backpack tighter, “still, I do want to apologize. I know I seem super nervous right now but it’s not because of you. Well, not you personally. I’m just— I’m just like this for some reason. Interacting with any new person is a lot for me. I mean, really, like, interacting with people I already know is a lot for me.”
“So you’re probably not the person I want sending out that whole horns and eyes message, huh?” She smiled slightly, and brought her face back down to meet mine. Eyes open.
“Well, uh, if you want me to tell people about that then I could give it a try? Maybe? But it kind of felt like maybe you didn’t want that. Or. Uh…” I meant that partly as a joke, but also partly as a legitimate offer. It honestly depended on her response more than anything else.
She laughed. That’s a good sign right?
Her smile was really pretty. It lit up her face in a way that I can’t quite describe. It made me feel comfortable. Happy.
And then a question popped into my head.
A really dumb question. A really stupid, dumb, and bad question. I knew how I was about to sound, but I simply couldn’t find the force of will to keep my mouth shut. The words tumbled off my tongue, spilling forth like so much junk past a closet door full to bursting.
“Are you magic?”
My question hit the ground with a resounding thud, its reverberations echoing in the silence of the empty train car. I glanced down in shock at these words. How rude of them to jump out onto the floor like that, no one had invited such an action. How dare they be so impolite? No. Words stop. Words, why would you do this to me? You’re making me look like an idiot out here. I turned back to my companion like a harried mother, having needed to interrupt our talk to admonish my misbehaving word children.
That said, dumb as it may have been, I did want to know the answer. I think she could tell. Hmm. Maybe she was magic after all. She did call out the cosplay thing earlier. Was she a mind reader perhaps? Fully probing the innermost recesses of my cluttered psyche. I would sincerely hope not, most of my thoughts are garbage. Her eyes squinted, brows furrowing in a manner one might call not entirely kind. Not glaring though. She looked more confused than anything. For a moment longer she stared. And then she spoke.
“I might be,” she said. That was not an answer.
“Ah.” Mild disappointment verbalized in onomatopoeic form.
“Are you stupid?” she asked.
“…I might be,” I answered.
Ouch. Okay. Roll it back. Things were going good before. We can fix this. She still doesn’t seem mad. That’s good.
“I’m kidding, by the way. I’m not actually stupid.”
“Good to know.”
“I just say and do stupid things on a semi-regular basis.”
“My grades are actually pretty good, not top ten in the school, but number twelve is pretty good right?”
“I mean, like, that’s better than you thought right?”
“You did set my expectations low. That’s true,” she grinned.
Could it be? A joke? Yes! That's what we're doing! Confidence, let’s be confident. Jokes. Let’s do jokes. Okay. Here we go. I turn my nose up to the sky and feign indignation. Commencing jokes. Snooty voice: on.
“How rude! I’ll have you know that I set only the highest of expectations.”
“Oh really now?” Still smiling. She was giving me a chance!
“Of course,” I nodded smugly, “the disappointment wouldn’t have nearly as much impact otherwise.”
“Indeed! That’s the kind of high-level strategy you need to know if you want to be a professional disappointment. I’ve been disappointing from a very young age so I have all kinds of insider information. Last year I even competed at nationals.”
“Did you win?”
“No… so, technically yes.”
“Your parents must be very proud.”
“How dare you?”
I glared at her in pretend anger. She cowered in pretend fear. Then we both dropped back to our natural positions.
“We are not funny,” she chuckled.
“That… is true. But you’re still laughing,” I smiled back.
I loosened my grip on my backpack as a giggle escaped my lips. The silence returned again, but changed. It felt good. Comfortable. We stared at each other for a moment, and then—
“You can call me Evi.” She took the initiative. Of course she did.
“Oh, uh, any last name, or um?”
“Evi is fine.” There was a slight glint of steel hiding behind that phrasing. I chose not interrogate it.
“Well, Evi. My name is Rin. Rin Miyashita. It’s very nice to meet you.” I gave a polite little nod. It was almost sort of a bow, but incomplete due to the fact that I was sitting in a chair.
Then an idea occurred to me. A good one this time.
“Oh hey! Evi. When we get off the train, can I buy you something from one of the vending machines? You know, to make up for me being all weird and stuff.”
“Thanks, but you don’t have to do that.”
“Yeah, I mean, I know I don’t have to… but I would like to. If that’s okay?”
She raised a hand to her chin, pausing to think.
“…Okay. But, I’ll buy something for you too.”
“Deal! What do you like?”
Evi interlocked her fingers and stretched her arms up over her head, palms only a few inches above the tip of her left horn.
“Anything sweet should be good,” she said with a sigh, “what about you?”
“Um. I like tea.”
“Sounds like we have a plan then.” Her arms lowered back down as she shifted her neck. Right, then left, straight up, then back to standard. She sank into her seat, eyes closed.
“Wake me up when we get there okay?”
“You’re going to sleep?”
“Nap. Yeah,” she opened one eye, “keep a look out, please.”
And now again both her eyes were closed. As the time passed, I wondered to myself where I should be looking. Yes, “keep a look out,” is just an expression, but the train was empty aside from the two of us and it felt maybe a little creepy for me to just stare at Evi’s sleeping body. I remembered my phone. Oh right.
I unzipped my backpack as quietly as I could and reached inside. Each tiny rustle of fabric from my fumbling search forced me to pause and peak back at Evi, hoping desperately that I hadn’t woken her up by accident. Thankfully, I retrieved the phone without incident. Good job me. I tapped the button on its side and the screen came to life. 12:12 AM. Huh. Not neat.
I blinked. Once. Twice. Thrice. 12:22 AM. Oh. Okay. Okay good. That’s a relief. Calm down Rin. No need to be so nervous. You’ve got yourself seeing things. Was that a glitch? Maybe my phone needs a software update. Hmm. It is an old phone. What if I need new glasses? That could be it.
I glanced back at Evi. When I first saw her, I wondered how I hadn’t noticed her sooner. Now, again, a question leapt out at me.
When did Evi get on the train?
I didn’t say it out loud. But I did want to know.
I stared at her sleeping face. That was probably a dumb question. I probably shouldn’t ask. Would it upset her if I asked? Maybe it would be okay. She seemed nice enough, and we had a rapport now. We talked. We joked. We knew each other’s names… mostly.
I took deep a breath.
We’d be at the station soon anyways.
I could always ask her after we got there.