I woke up groggily, my eyes fogged by sleep, and with the raw taste of iron in my mouth. I groaned and rolled over to my back. The ceiling fan spun slowly above me. With a grunt of exertion, I forced myself to sit up and saw Sludge and Erick sprawled out on the floor. Sludge was curled up in a tiny ball, blond hair matted with blood, Erick lay sprawled out like a starfish; a series of short, but deep cuts on his cheeks and one on his neck. Their chests rose and fell slowly, laboriously. As if their lungs weren’t sure the next breath was worth it.

I wondered whether I should wake them up, then decided I should freshen myself up first. I lumbered over to my bathroom, my steps heavy and uncoordinated, and when I saw myself in the mirror, I barely resisted the urge to scream.

My teeth were entirely red, and the rough outline of a handprint was caked in blood on my right cheek.

I stared at myself in the mirror, ragged breaths spilling out of my body in incoherent wisps. Quickly, I ran the water and rubbed the handprint off. Then I gingerly examined my teeth.

As I confirmed that all of them were still in their place, I heard sounds coming from the living room. I poked my head around the hall and saw that Erick was moving. He slowly rolled over to his stomach and stood up weakly. “Holy shit Solomon,” he gasped out, “Your mouth is…”

“You don’t look so hot yourself,” I responded. “Come on, let’s get some rubbing alcohol and bandages or something for your face.”

“What? Wait a min- what happ-” he turned around and saw our friend passed out on the carpet, “What about Sludge? Oh m- What happened?”

“I don’t know,” I answered, panic quickly building up inside me, “But we can worry about Sludge when he wakes up. Right now we should take care of your face.”

Erick put his hands to his face and I saw the color drain from his body as he separated newly wet and red fingers from the multiple wounds. “Come on!” I said, “Before they get infected.”

He staggered over to me and I helped him to my bathroom where I had the first aid kit my mother gave me. It was something that I’d always made fun of her for. It had the basics such as alcohol, band aids, bandage tape, and aspirin, but it also had one of those aluminum looking blankets, three flares, and a needle and thread. I took out the giant kit and got to work, only letting Erick see his face once I was done and had cleaned up most of it.

It was still a mess, and his horrified face once he looked in the mirror reflected it.

From the living room, we heard small scuffles and whimpers.

Sludge.

He could barely stand. He was swerving and stumbling all over the place. Erick moved over to him and put Sludge’s bony arm around his shoulder. “Alright, come on,” he said to Sludge, “You can stand. Come on little guy.”

Sludge managed to stand still shakily, he took one look at me, then at Erick, and in a wheeze of a voice asked, “How bad is it?”

Neither of us wanted to say, “Pretty bad.” So we instead offered inane platitudes. “You’ll be alright,” I said, while Erick opted for, “It’ll be okay.”

We debated what we should do, and after Erick confirmed that Sludge’s skull wasn’t split in two, we decided that the blood was someone else’s and that he should wash it off in the shower.

When he had staggered out, and we were all sitting “peacefully” in the living room, Erick proposed the banger. “I think we should call the police.”

“No. No police,” I said sternly.

“Solomon what the hell?” Asked Erick, “We might have gotten robbed! We might have fended for our lives!”

“No no it wasn’t robbers!” I groaned and buried my head in my hands, “Does anyone remember anything that happened last night?”

We sat in silence until I suddenly received a flash of a memory. Us three, in a circle, each with a match.

I went cold.

“Do… do you guys remember… it was a game. Sludge, he wanted to summon some ghost or another…”

The atmosphere in the room changed immediately. This dismal sense of dread filled each one of us as we realized what had happened just a few hours ago that left us in this state.

“We fought a ghost…” Erick stared fixatedly at the floor.

“Did we at least win?” Sludge asked.

“I’m not sure,” I answered, “I have a feeling that if we hadn’t won, we wouldn’t be alive now.”

We all stared at the floor for quite some time before I finally spoke. “You guys should go to the hospital. Tell them you got mugged or something. It’s-”

“We’ll be fine,” Erick said, “Besides, I haven’t got the money for it anyway.”

Sludge gingerly shook his head, “No, I can’t either. If my parents figure out why I landed in the hospital it’ll be the end of me. If they figure out that I hurt my friends in the process…” His voice broke, and then his clear blue eyes became glassy. “I’ll be alright. I’ll just head on home, if that’s alright with you guys.”

I couldn’t stand to look at Sludge cry. “That’s alright with me,” I said while tapping my fingers on my lap. “It’s not like you can stay here all day.”

Sludge stood to leave, and Erick stood with him. “I’ll take you home buddy,” he said, “You don’t look too well.”

Sludge thanked him weakly and the two opened the door to my apartment and left me all alone.

I walked to my kitchen and took a glass from the cupboard, then I turned on the tap.
The water came out normally for about a second, then the flow started to slow. I tilted my head and lightly tapped the spout. It kept slowing, until there were only small droplets struggling to drop. And then there was this horrible noise, like all the pipes were twisting themselves together, violently scraping against each other. I recoiled and tried to cover my ears as best as I could, when I suddenly noticed a faint grayish vapor coming through the spout. It rose to the ceiling, noise escalating both in volume and in discord.

I threw my glass in the sink and crouched against the corner of the counter, my hands firmly planted over my ears. For a few seconds that was all I could hear, and with
my eyes shut, all I could see were terrifying visions of that smoke slowly spreading itself throughout my apartment. I clenched my teeth and squeezed my eyes even harder. The noise was becoming unbearable. I could feel the pipes scraping against my bones, I could feel them twisting around my brain, squeezing it until it became a deformed knot. The veins in my eyes were bulging. I could feel them stretching, I could *see* the thin red lines stretching, filling themselves up like fat slugs ready to burst.

My heart beat violently against my ribs and I saw myself inhaling the smoke, it was all around me, inside me now. I felt it burrowing inside my chest, I had to scream, I had to get it out, but if I opened my mouth, it would just rush in through there.

The sound grew louder, competing with the sound of my own heart inside my head. I couldn’t stand it, what did it matter, I couldn’t-

I opened my mouth and my eyes and screamed as loudly as I could.

The sound stopped.

I looked around at the ground level. There was no smoke, it wasn’t curling around me, getting inside me. I looked around some more, and then I looked up.

Floating about a foot in the air was a being that resembled a gray genie. He had strong and muscled arms that hung grimly at his sides, and he wore a vest the same color as himself. Below his belt, the body was smoke, and he stared down at me with bulging eyes that looked as if they’d been torn out, then crudely stuck back. His mouth was slightly
curved into a frown.

We stared at each other for a good two minutes before he spoke. “Why have you called upon me?”

“It was a game,” would have been the honest answer, but something told me this man certainly didn’t take it as a game.

“I don’t know,” would have been another perfectly honest answer, but again, something in his eyes told me that wasn’t the right answer either. I had no idea what to say.

The genie kept looking down at me with his frown. Eventually I said, “As a favor to a friend.” He seemed satisfied with this answer.

“What does your friend desire?”

“He wanted companionship I suppose,” I said, “Poor Sludge. He gets so excited about paranormal things, but we never really pay any attention to him.”

“The blond one,” the genie said, “Yes, I sensed a certain enthusiasm and wonder from him.”

It occurred to me that Sludge would have given his entire family’s wealth to be here instead of me. And it occurred to me that I’d give my entire family’s wealth (the $700 in our bank account) to trade places with him right now. If I could show him the genie, perhaps it would all have been worth it.

“I know what you are thinking,” the genie said, “I can see it in your face.” But no, your friend can not see me. You are the one who bested me, you are the one who gets my services.”

“Can’t I order you to make yourself visible to him?”

The genie snickered, “That is not how it works. As it is now, I am under your service, when you have obtained my essence, then will I be under your control. Then you may do whatever it is you want.”

I sighed. “So, what do we do now?”

The genie crossed his arms. “That is for you to decide.”

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