New York City has always been a big fat sack of stress for Amanda Grey. Luckily, the one-bedroom apartment in Queens she shares with her parents has always served as a refuge from a world that's too loud and too bright for Grey. Of course, that's all about to change.
When she inadvertently rents a room to a demon, Grey goes from a woman concentrated on her own personal demons to the woman responsible for recapturing the six Shades from Hell she's unleashed upon the city. She manages to survive by accepting the help of Barnem, an antisocial seraphim who just happens to reside in an upstairs apartment and the demon she now shares her apartment with.
Together the unlikely trio will have to face off with the devils of New York politics, break the curse of infomercial jingles, and figure out exactly how Grey has become the leader of a cult, all as Grey begins to realize that maybe the end of the world is exactly what her life needed. Now she just needs to figure out how to survive it.
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"Hello. My name is Amanda Grey."
I stuck out my hand and stared at my reflection.
The large mirror I managed to drag from my room into the living room told no lies. I looked like a complete idiot in the stupid pants suit thingy my sister had left behind when she moved out. The ensemble consisted of a white top and black bottom.
I look like a fucking penguin.
"Hey. I'm Amanda."
"Greetings. I am Ms. Grey."
Too foot fetish madame.
I fist bumped my reflection which, unsurprisingly, looked ashamed to meet me halfway.
I just wanted to keep my apartment. It's not anything those hippies living in NoHo (North of Houston), or the yuppies flocking to DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge something), or even the dummies squatting in RATCHET (Right Around Thelma's Chicken Hut on East Twentieth) or whatever the hell has been fantastically acronymed for the sake of a rent hike — my point is that anyone else would have pulled the same thing to stay where they are. Well, that's what I want to believe. Because that's what New York life is like. You find a place with lots of sunlight, with at least a 1:4 rat to roach ratio, and within walking distance to a supermarket and/or train and/or bus to get you to that train or bus or what-have-you, and you plant yourself. You sit and wait and hope you can stay afloat when the next rent swell smashes into you.
Checking the time, I saw that I only had a small window before my guest showed up. I skipped the salutations and went right into practicing my smile.
My reflection said it all. I was dressed like a Crayola marker. I had nothing to do with my hair, so I rubber-banned it and prayed for the best. With funds being the way they were — as in, nonexistent — I had run out of actual soap that morning, so I Febreezed the hell out of my clothes and threw them on.
To top it all off, the best smile I could come up with after ten minutes of practice was pretty damn hideous — it bunched up the light freckles on my nose to look like a smeared map of Europe. Too many teeth exposed on top, too few on the bottom. I felt like a clown, I looked like an idiot, and I smelled like a couch in an "Autumn Breeze."
Leaning my head against the mirror, I gave my forehead three straight bumps. Knock-knock-knock.
And then, there were three knocks on my door. He was here.
I sighed. You're an idiot, Amanda Grey.
Dragging myself to the door, I thought about the stupidity that had stuck me in this horrible position to begin with. I was a screw up. Had been all of my life, but this time was major. Fucking epic. I had gone from a twenty-coughcough-something girl living in her parents' apartment in my little section of Queens, to the person days away from getting her entire family evicted. Sleeping out in the streets.
Walking toward my apartment door, readying myself to welcome the warm blooded stranger -waiting patiently behind its wooden frame, I knew that I was possibly about to headline a serious shit show.
What I didn't know, as I slid open every lock, hearing each one click open one by one by one — this was New York — was that all of my social weirdness and worries, each and every misplaced fear and phobia, was just the tip of the iceberg; that the guy waiting on the other side of my door was about to bring the whole thing to another level. A screw up of literal biblical proportions.
So as I reached for that door handle, I knew that my back was against the wall. My last week had already been hell on earth. The Craigslist roommate ad I had slapped online had subjected me to the most obnoxious and wretched scum this rich, beautiful city has to offer. And strange doesn't bother me. Trust me, I'm all for the weird. But awkward? I've officially hit my awkward quota for the year, thank you very much. Want a glimpse? A few of the "greatest hits"?
I got into a heated, almost violent, debate because one guy objected to one of my lifestyle choices. I mean, what you do in your home is your own business, I agree. But to me, it's painfully obvious: Trix is an edible cereal while Cap'n Crunch should only be shot at zombies and insurgents.
One girl said that I had to call her parents back home to pledge that I wouldn't give her "the lesbianism."
There was one guy, just one, who got all the way through the entire vetting process, I mean the entire thing, and was shaping up to be the perfect fit. He was smart, calm, and vaguely handsome, so I wouldn't have to worry about taking number twos with him nearby. Better still, he was paying cash. Upfront! I gave him the apartment contract and he whipped out a pen to sign.
But then he looked up and asked, "Do your feet stink?" I froze as he stared at me, waiting for an answer.
"No!" I crossed and recrossed my arms because I didn't know what to do with them. Dropping them on my lap, I tried to smile, but my lips came up so broadly that it hurt my face.
Angrily, he put his pen away and stood. "That's a real shame," he said, and then walked out of my apartment, and out of my life.
Wishing for some change of luck, and feeling that I needed something in the "win" column, I turned the knob to my front door and slowly opened my life to my fourth and final candidate.
His bio stated that he was fifty-four, and Gaffrey Palls did seem that old, but an old guy built like a small house. To me he looked like what a retired linebacker would be if he ate nothing but cement and other retired linebackers. Otherwise, there was nothing too alarming about him. He even wore a suit: long, gray dress coat, fine pair of ironed pants, and his shoes shone. Palls' face sat stern, cleanly shaven, all business.
Considering all of the crazies that I had paraded through my home, this was like a breath of fresh air. Still, I made sure that everything was in place before I invited him in: I kept the cell phone in my hand with 9-1-1 all ready to press dial; three cans of mace sitting in strategic locations around the apartment; and my trusty safety alert whistle around my neck. Hell yes, I was ready.
And hell yes, I was dead wrong.
As I closed the door behind him, Palls stood in the space between the kitchen and my living room; the sheer size of him made him look like a sumo wrestler navigating a doll house.
As he stood there, I tried my best not to fidget too much. My parents' apartment was on the line. They were away on vacation and had left me to mind everything back home, with rent all up to date while they traipsed around the globe for a month and a half. But then came the bouncing checks, the mail with the red letters stamped "IMPORTANT" on the front. Housing had backlogged our rent as missing for three months. Three entire months in the hole! I did what I could using the account they had left for me, but that was starting to dry up. My parents were long gone, unreachable. My only other family member, my younger sister, was as approachable as the bubonic plague. I didn't have friends, let alone rich friends who had two thousand dollars to spot me.
So that's how I got to that point in time, nervously wringing my hands as a complete and total stranger stood in my living room. Me, Amanda Grey: someone who could only take being in public spaces for five, maybe six minutes tops before wanting to set fire to something.
I stepped around him, trying to hide how desperate I was. I was drowning in the fact that I really needed this to work; that Palls needed to be some kind of savior because I was at the end of my rope, up shit's creek, and et cetera with all the other doom-filled propaganda. So to break the ice, I threw on that goofy smile I had been practicing and extended my hand.
"Hello, um, Mr. Palls. I'm, uh, Amanda Grey. Er. Nice to meet you, finally."
Palls stared at my tiny peace offering. Then he smiled, exposing these rotten, misshapen teeth. One canine zigged, the other molar zagged. It made me recoil a bit.
The next thing I knew, he lunged at me, slamming his hand around my neck. The moment I tried to scream, he crushed the breath right out of my throat and lifted me off of my feet. With one arm, he tossed me aside, sending me crashing against my fridge. I only managed to avoid breaking my neck on the hard surface by turning my head at the last second. Not being my first ass kicking — and in no way was it to be my last in this bloody story, unfortunately — I fought off the metallic taste of blood in my mouth, the slippery spots swimming in my sight line, and my broken wrist, to get to my feet and call for help.
With my cell phone smashed somewhere, I grabbed my whistle, fumbled with it, put it to my lips. But no amount of adrenaline could put the air back into my lungs, and Palls, wasting no time, quickly wrapped his tree trunk arms around me in a bear hug.
I managed to get my arms free, but slamming them against his face and shoulders felt like I had entered a fistfight with a freight train. The moment a few of my ribs gave out, punctuated with a warm, wet crunch, my whole body seized. I coughed and blood splattered Pall's face.
So I did the only thing I could do in that situation — I took my whistle and crammed the sharpest side into Palls' eye until it tore open the entire lid. He tried to jerk his face away, but with my palm flat, I jammed the whistle passed those tiny folds of flesh until the whole thing vanished into his head.
I remember that there was this dull pop as it sank deeper into the socket. Even with an object lodged into his skull, Palls didn't budge. So I grabbed the cord, tore the entire whistle out of his face, and crammed the whole thing right into his big, fat mouth.
He let go of me right away, but that didn't mean much on my end, what with my eyes sliding in and out of focus, black to fuzz and back again. I could hear him nearby, thrashing around like an animal, crashing into everything in my apartment, while the whistle lodged in his windpipe made this gargled zwee-zwee sound that was all wet, all mucus.
Then Palls — all two hundred plus pounds of him — face-planted right in front me, his skull driving down like a spike that made a small dent in my hardwood floor.
Gaffrey Palls died staring at me. I still remember the red string hanging out of his throat, the way the crooked veins in his only good eye sprouted out like dying fireworks.
A part of me wanted to say something to cut the silence. I wanted to say something smart like "Boom" or "Yeah" or "Please help me someone because I believe there's a small chance that I'll most definitely bleed to death here."
I never got the chance.
I heard this thick crunch and a hefty wet splatter as Pall's knee snapped like someone had hit it with a sledgehammer. Then his left leg. Then both of his arms. Suddenly, a storm of crows burst out of the Gaffrey Palls' body and descended on my trashed apartment.
The crows — black feathers slicked and glistening, bodies roughly the size of small dogs — loitered around my apartment. Each one sported a black number printed in thick typewriter font at the center of each crimson-colored eye. There were five.
One of the crows — Number 2 — hopped over to my tipped over box of Trix and began scarfing down one black beak-full after another. It may have been the concussion speaking, but I nodded to myself because I thought that even freakish crows know what's up: Trix is where it's at. Fuck a Cap'n Crunch.
Only one of the crows seemed to see me, seemed to care that I was even there at all. It stood larger than the rest with a small crest of white feathers above its beady red eyes, a number 5 etched into them. It launched itself at me, striking at whatever I couldn't cover up in time with its blade shaped beak. It tore into my ears, nose, fingers, shoulders. Before I could fight it off, my door imploded with a crash, scaring all of the crows into the air.
A man entered from the hall. I recognized him as the old-ish looking gentleman from upstairs. He lived alone, didn't talk to a soul. I once rode the elevator with him. He smelled of wet pigeons. He came into my apartment swinging a bat, but the crows took flight and burst through my street side window.
Running to check through the broken glass, the man then looked over at me. "You okay, Grey?" he asked, which I found weird because he had never talked to me before. "I'm Barnem. I am a Seraph ... the highest order of angel," he added, which I also found weird because I always thought he was Albanian.
I heard a chirp.
One last bird — smaller, more disheveled — climbed out of Gaffrey Pall's mouth, and with its gray feathers barely grown out and tiny legs wobbling, the creature fell flat on its face and then shook itself off. It blinked at me and chirped again. Number 6.
Barnem yelled and drove the bat down over his head. But the bat missed completely as the chick used its tiny wings to fly a crooked path to my feet. Then its body started changing, warping, swelling. The matted feathers grew tough and leathery; the beak turned into six sharp fingers, three on each hand; the body bubbled like black taffy. What stood in front of me was impish, standing four feet tall with two round hands ending in claws. Its feet were hooved and its legs were arched backward like a doe's. Even for its size, the round, dark belly wobbled when it walked. Its head was shaped like a partially inflated football. And where there should have been horns sprouting up on either side, two soggy flaps, which ... I'm not sure if these were supposed to be stand-ins for ears or what, but otherwise, that's all it had in the "features" department. No eyes, no nose.
As it leaned toward me, it began to growl. The vibrations sank into the floor, the walls. My broken table and shattered dishes began to rattle. Every light bulb in my apartment popped, sending glass and ghostly sparks everywhere. A tear formed around the base of the shadow's head, one that stretched the entire base. A mouth was opening for the first time. It drew closer.
The creature slapped a paw over its mouth.
Barnem shot me a look and shrugged. I would have shrugged back, but, you know, the blood loss was impairing my muscle responses.
"KFRM!" the demonic oompa-loompa squealed again.
"Uh. B-bless you?" I said.
The creature started heaving, wrenching, snapping its neck from side to side. Along with this twisted sound came a phlegmy whooping, followed by a dry, drawn out wheeze like a car failing to start. The mouth became sucked into his head and its round belly rocked like a water bed. It fell on all fours, gagging and then suckling up air until, like some cat from hell, the creature hocked up a brown ball of mucus which splattered onto my chest.
Spitting out as much of the liquid as I could, I cleared my eyes enough to spot what must have been a ten-inch stack of hundreds and a print of my Craigslist ad soaked in thick grime, just lying there.
I stared at it.
For a long time.
Barnem, still brandishing his bat but no longer up to using it, called out to me, "You can't be really thinking about accepting this, Grey? It's a demon!"
Beside me, my trashcan laid turned over. Among the garbage sat the "final notice" from my building. I was days away from getting my parents evicted from what was our home, our way of life. And yet sitting on my chest was my answer, my shred of good luck. My way to make all of those worries melt away.
Barnem began massaging the bridge of his nose with the tips of his fingers, then mumbled something about the fragility of the mortal spirit, and about going out for a smoke. He didn't say anything about my door — which he had kicked in, F-Y-I — and stepped over the fractured wood, dragging the bat behind him like a defeated child.
The creature retreated a few paces and spit up a black luggage bag with wheels. Clutching its handle, the demon opened its mouth to smile. The size of its maw was large enough to swallow me whole. But what disturbed me more was that instead of razor sharp teeth, I found myself staring at swollen gray lumps. No teeth, just nubbed gums.
Snapping its jaws shut with a sharp clop, it then pirouetted on the spot and strode off, managing to walk over the mangled corpse of Gaffrey Palls — a solid th-thump from its rolly bags for his troubles. And then it slammed the door to its room.
Barely a second passed when the door flew open again and music came pouring out of the room. With one of my towels dragging around its waist and another tied around its head, the pudgy little demon strutted its way to the bathroom and used a light ass-bump to slam the door shut.
As the hiss of the shower came on, I found myself able to take a breath. Cradling my broken wrist in place, I managed the strength to stagger to my feet and take a good look around. Amidst my ringing headache, broken glass, and the amniotic goo — the realization of what I had signed up for began to billow in my mind like a cloud.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "And Then There Were Crows"
Copyright © 2018 Alcy Leyva.
Excerpted by permission of Black Spot Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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