Julie strained to hear her friends' voices over the music in the bar. She divided her attention between the trivia going on at the other side of the bar and the conversations in front of her.
“I wish I had known it was Tuesday trivia,” Elaine complained for what felt like the tenth time. Sitting across from Julie, Elaine helped herself to the last slice of her birthday cake.
Julie held her half-drunk beer; the condensation stuck to her hand. “Come on, you've been holding onto that drink for an hour,” Piper said, nudging her from the side.
Julie sighed. “I've got to drive home,” she said as an excuse. She used to go out all the time bar-hopping with her brother, but now it felt like she was forcing herself to be here.
Piper, already quite drunk, got into Julie's face. “Aw, what's going on?” she asked. “Bobbi getting on your nerves?”
Julie laughed. Bobbi was their boss at the call center and all of them hated her. Her list of sins was extensive: Bobbi was lazy, rude, and unhelpful in general. At least they would have a new boss soon.
Julie could normally trash-talk Bobbi all day, but she felt overwhelmed at the moment by all the noise in the bar. With some difficulty, she pried herself from Piper's attention and made her way toward the bathroom.
The women's bathroom was empty. Julie sighed with relief as she turned on the faucet and splashed her face.
Julie saw a flicker of light out of the corner of her eye. Lifting her head to look in the mirror, she immediately regretted it.
Reflected in the mirror was a pale woman with dark eyes. She was wearing a pitch-black hooded robe and in the mirror, she reached out and placed a hand on Julie's shoulder.
Julie whipped around, but there was no one standing beside her.
Only in the mirror.
Julie opened her mouth to scream, only to hear a deep voice say in her ear, “Don't make a sound.”
Julie struggled to even out her breathing and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the woman was still reflected in the mirror.
All of Julie's instincts told her to run, but she was paralyzed by fear. She felt her heart pounding against her chest. In the mirror, the woman slipped her slender hand into her robes, pulling out a pack of cigarettes. She slid out a single cigarette and lit it with a small flame that appeared at the tip of her pointer finger.
The woman took a long drag from her cigarette and coughed. “I'd offer you one, but cigs are hard to come by here,” she said lightly. “Also, as you can probably tell, I'm not actually present, as it were. Just a projection.”
Julie stared down at the sink, blinking. “Someone must have slipped something into my drink,” she mumbled. “Something real strong.”
“My dear, I've been watching you all night. No one has spiked your drink,” the reflected woman said.
Julie jerked her head back up to glare into the mirror. “Why have you been watching me, then? Who are you?” A third, unspoken question hung in the air. Would the reflection kill her? Reach through the mirror and choke her or slit her throat? Julie panicked and moved toward the bathroom door.
A bemused expression crept across the face of the woman in the mirror as Julie jiggled the stuck doorknob. “I can't open it!” Julie exclaimed, on the verge of tears. “You've trapped me here!”
“Don't be silly. I just had my servant jam the door temporarily to ensure us a little privacy.” The reflected woman waved the free hand that wasn't holding the cigarette. “I'm not going to harm you. I'm Ereshkigal, and I'd just like to make a deal with you.”
Julie shook her head to clear her mind. “Are you the devil?” she asked. “I thought the devil was supposed to be a man.”
Ereshkigal snorted. “You folks and your supposed notions of gender expectations.” She finished smoking her cigarette and crushed the butt in her palm. “I am the queen of the underworld.”
Now it was Julie's turn to be derisive. “Sure you are.”
“What else could I be? You'd best get creative if you aren't going to believe me.” Ereshkigal rolled her eyes. “Anyway, I came here to talk about your brother.”
Julie was silent for a moment. “What about him?”
“He was never meant to be taken. To die, I mean.”
“Billy?” Julie whispered, her eyes growing wide. For a moment, Julie forgot to breathe. Her younger brother Billy had died in a motorcycle accident less than a month ago. Out of all of Billy's friends and family, Julie had probably had the hardest time dealing with his death. Billy had been more than her brother, he had been her best friend.
Julie looked away. “I don't understand.”
Ereshkigal sighed. “My servants took Billy to my realm when they meant to take someone else. Specifically, someone you know. Your boss, Bobbi.”
Julie resisted the temptation to roll her eyes. “Well, isn't that convenient.”
“It wasn't me, it was the gallu. Bobbi, Billy.. they sound similar I suppose. Demons make mistakes too, you know.” Ereshkigal shrugged. Her eyes narrowed and she snapped her fingers; the mirror began to darken. Huddled in a corner, Billy appeared, looking pale and miserable.
“Billy!” Julie cried out, pressing her hand against the mirror's glass.
Ereshkigal waved her hand and the vision faded. “You can't speak to him now. But you can save him.”
“Save Billy? How?” Julie's fear had quickly turned to desperation.
“Kill Bobbi and I'll bring him back.”
“Why can't you do it yourself? Or have your demons do it?”
“My gallu are only given certain permissions to take people. Which makes situations like these hard to fix.” Ereshkigal folded her arms. “So?”
“You want me to kill someone to get Billy back?” Julie hestitated. “I don't think I could do that.”
“I find that people can do a lot of things they think they can't do, given the proper motivation. Besides, Bobbi was supposed to die, not your brother. Think of it as restoring order.”
Julie pointed at the woman in the mirror. “Bring him back first.”
“Of course I can. But that will put a time limit on your task.” Ereshkigal looked thoughtful. “Quotas must be met, you see.”
“Fine,” Julie said quickly. “Bobbi is leaving in two weeks, anyway.”
“Plenty of time.” Ereshkigal clasped her hands together. “One of my gallu demons will be following you to ensure your progress. You won't be able to see them, but then again, I don't think you'd want to. Oh, and you'll receive a mark, as is customary with these sorts of deals.”
Julie shook her head. “Why would I need a mark?”
“In case you think this is a very strange dream. Action is expected of you, and I'd like to make sure you don't forget it.” Ereshkigal nodded. “I think that's all, then.” She waved a hand and the door unlocked with a click. Her reflection in the mirror disappeared.
“But wait!” Julie called out. “What if I fail?”
Piper walked in just then, grabbing Julie by the arm. “Geez man, what have you been doing in here for so long? We thought you left!”
Julie woke the next morning to the sun shining through her thin curtains. She groaned. She'd had way too much to drink last night after the incident in the bathroom - and she still had to work today.
Julie pushed the covers off and wandered to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. To her surprise, coffee had already been made, with her favorite mug sitting out on the counter. She held the coffee mug in her hands, looking at it curiously.
The sound of footsteps prompted her to look up. Billy had entered the room. “Oh, good morning, thought I'd stop by since I got up a little early to study for an exam. Made you some coffee, too.”
The cup Julie had been holding shattered to the ground.
Billy looked more confused than anything. “Geez, you look like you've seen a ghost,” he said as he helped her pick up the pieces. Before he had died, Billy had lived close by to Julie, going to community college while Julie worked at the call center. Julie bit back tears, remembering how lonely it had been just after he had died – the apartment had been so empty without him coming around, sleeping over, and hanging out.
Though now, it seemed though he had never gone.
Julie went back to her room and got dressed. As she did, she noticed a little mark on the inside of her big toe – a little black-and-white skull. A marking after all, she thought. There was a noise in the corner of her bedroom, like someone breathing. “Billy,” she yelled out, “you didn't bring anyone else over, did you?”
She already knew the answer, which was no.
The two weeks passed without incident, both faster and slower than Julie had anticipated. Faster, because she was busy with work and also preparing to murder her boss. She'd spent several days agonizing over how she might do it before remembering that Bobbi had a severe allergy to peanuts. That was easy – she would bring a peanut butter sandwich in a baggie to her last monthly meeting with Bobbi. It was almost too easy, which made her a little nervous.
The gallu that she knew was watching her also made her paranoid. At night she could hear it, breathing and rustling in the corner of her bedroom. Many sleepless nights were had as she tried to ignore it but failed as she imagined what the invisible creature was capable of.
The tattoo was also annoying. It burned against her skin every time she passed by Bobbi in the hallway or held an object like a knife or screwdriver. She wondered what would happen to the little skull after she killed Bobbi – would it fade away?
Billy, for his part, was very understanding; he didn't pry nearly as much as Julie thought he would. After Julie had gotten over the shock of having him around again, things felt much more normal. He was busy with his classes and his sports as well – though he definitely did not approve of Julie's new hobby of watching serial killer documentaries.
At last, the day arrived. Bobbi called Julie into her office for the final monthly evaluation. Julie had the peanut butter sandwich in her bag, all ready to go. She was rather proud of herself – even having a plan of how to get Bobbi's life-saving epipen away from her in time. Julie had thought often about Bobbi in the past couple weeks, allowing herself no remorse for the ultimate crime she was about to commit.
It was simple – Billy deserved to live, and Bobbi did not.
Bobbi's office was empty except for a small photo frame on her desk. Julie had never noticed it before, as usually Bobbi's desk was cluttered with knick-knacks.
Curiosity got the better of her, and Julie finally asked, “Are those your kids?”
Bobbi laughed, a nasally chortle that always annoyed Julie. “Oh no, just my niece and nephew. They're four and seven. Never could have kids of my own so I love on these ones as often as I can.” Bobbie talked for another moment or so about them before beginning to address Julie's work performance.
She doesn't deserve them, Julie thought, but it was too late. The floodgate of questions that Julie had held back for the past two weeks came back. Could she really say that Billy's life was worth more than Bobbi's? After all, as annoying and lazy as she was, Bobbi still had people in her life who needed her.
And though she had watch several videos of people going into anphylactic shock, Julie didn't know if she could live with herself if she had to watch someone die from it because of her. Even the worst boss in the world.
Julie did not touch the sandwich in her bag during the entire meeting. Afterwards, she asked to leave work early.
Once home, Julie walked into the kitchen, tossing her keys on the kitchen counter. She grabbed the peanut butter sandwich out of her bag and threw it in the trash. “So there,” she said to the empty apartment. “I couldn't do it. What are you going to do, take Billy back? I won't let you do it.” Julie was breathing heavy, on the verge of tears.
“There is nothing you can do to harm me,” a voice in the corner rasped. Julie's heart leapt into her throat.
There was a shimmer in the air, and Julie saw the gallu for the first time. Ereshkigal was right – she wished it had remained invisible. The dark hulking creature took up the entire corner of the kitchen. Ragged, leathery wings were folded on its back; it stood on goat hooves. Curving horns grew out of its head and an unnaturally wide mouth showcased sharp yellowed teeth. Its' red eyes glowed as it growled, “A soul for a soul. Those were the terms, were they not?”
Julie took several steps backward, but a shiver ran down her spine as she realized there was nowhere to go. She bumped into the wall behind her.
The gallu reached out and grabbed her in one swift motion. The demon's claws dug into Julie's skin, drawing beads of sticky blood. She was lifted clear off the ground, her feet dangling and the gallu's arm pressed hard against her chest.
The gallu bounded across the room and burst through the windows in the living room.
Time seemed to freeze as the glass shattered around Julie and the demon. Shards of glass sliced Julie's skin and face; she kicked the gallu but it was if the demon were made of stone.
The gallu's wings creaked as they hovered for a moment in the air. Then it dove downward. The wind swallowed up Julie's screams and there was a thump as her body hit the ground.
Julie felt her soul ripped out of her body as they continued to fall below the earth, faster and faster still. Now there was no wind, only the tightness of the gallu holding Julie tightly.
They landed at last; however the gallu did not let go. It dragged Julie by her wrist across the jagged ground. Her anguished cries echoed around them in the darkness.
They reached a dimly lit chamber where Ereshkigal sat on a stone throne. The gallu threw Julie at Ereshkigal's feet. Exhausted from her journey, Julie could barely lift her head. “You lied,” she said to Ereshkigal. “You can collect souls whenever you want. You didn't need me at all.”
Ereshkigal looked down at her. “Oh, but I did need you. It was you I wanted all along.” Ereshkigal got up from her stone throne. She crouched down and lifted Julie's chin up with her cold fingers. “But look on the bright side, dear. You've saved Billy.
“And now, you're mine.”