Carter gripped the bottom of his leather seat desperately. He swallowed nervously as the car weaved through lanes of traffic on the freeway. Every bump and irregularity of the road sent a jolt up his arms.
He tried to take a deep breath without being obvious. He shut his eyes for a moment, but that didn’t help. Suddenly, he was being pushed farther back into his seat. Carter looked at the speedometer–the dial was pushing 100 mph. Ian was grinning, his leg pressing further down on the gas pedal. Carter’s heart dropped to his stomach and a sense of impending doom wrapped around him, suffocating him.
Could he grab the overhead bar for support? That’d feel safer … but no. Natalie was sitting right next to him. She’d notice, and that wouldn’t do Carter’s chances any good. A boiling sense of anger bubbled up inside of him for the driver.
But then, just as suddenly as it had started, the car slowed down to a more comfortable cruising speed. Carter’s muscles relaxed, leaving him feeling shaken and tired as if he’d just climbed a whole rock wall. He noticed there was rain pounding on the roof of the car now. When had that started?
Ian was laughing with Bree, the girl with the red hair in shotgun. They liked the insane speed–somehow. Carter looked over at Natalie. She met his eyes, revealing the grin on her face. Carter offered a weak smile that probably resembled a grimace more than anything and turned away from her gaze.
Maybe going out tonight wasn’t the best idea.
Carter had an essay to finish by the end of the weekend, and probably should be studying for the physics test. He’d already done poorly on the first one …
And this death car was not exactly helping with his stress.
But Natalie had invited him … so maybe it wouldn’t be all bad. The others in the car were talking and Carter shook himself out of his thoughts to listen in.
“Scariest thing that’s happened to me? Oh, I don’t know if you wanna hear this one,” Ian was saying. He had been away at college in Washington for the last year and had just returned a week or two ago; Bree and Natalie had been friends with him before he left their high school, but Carter had been new in town back then. He didn’t even remember Ian.
“Come on, you’ve gotta tell us,” Bree pleaded in her nasal, high-pitched voice. Natalie nodded and pushed at Ian’s chair from behind. “Answer the question!” She said teasingly.
Ian was quiet for a second. The silence seemed to stretch just a moment too long, just enough for the laughs to die down and for the talking to stop. Then he began:
“There was this buddy of mine who said he knew this lady that would fix up my car for cheap–I was looking ‘cause some idiot decided to scratch up mine without ever leaving a note,” he started, staring at the road. He didn’t seem to be very focused on it, though. Carter watched the freeway, catching his breath every time the cars ahead braked. The rain wasn’t helping.
“He sent me her number, so I called her at the end of the day. She didn’t pick up. My buddy, Alex, shrugged when I told him–he said it was no biggie because he still had her address, too. It was close by anyways, so I decided to check it out,” Ian continued. He hesitated for a second, licked his lips and went on. The others leaned forward, captured by the story. Carter tried his best not to roll his eyes.
“I went on the next Saturday afternoon and found it tucked away between these two bigger apartment buildings. It was a small house. I remember there was a car in the driveway, so I thought someone would be home. I walked up to the front door and knocked–but then the door just swung open,” he said, and Carter noticed his white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel. The girls let out a squeal. Natalie covered her mouth with a hand.
“Noooo…” Bree trailed off, pulling into herself. “Like … by itself?”
Carter’s first reaction was to reject the ridiculous story, but for some reason the way Ian told it kept him on edge. It wasn’t real. Carter knew that, but still … the dark, rainy sky outside their car seemed a lot more ominous now.
“Creepy, I know. I wasn’t sure what to do then, so I just started backing up, but then I saw her. The lady was standing at the end of the hallway past the door. Except something wasn’t right. Something about her eyes, and the way she twitched … it wasn’t human. I kept looking, and she just started smiling. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen, I swear. Then she started walking towards me, and I finally booked it out of there,” Ian finished.
“There’s no way,” Natalie said, shaking her head and smirking. Bree seemed to believe him. Ian glanced back at the two in the backseat and waved his hand agitatedly.
“No, trust, it happened. I was scared out of my mind for the rest of the day,” Ian tried, and he did his best to look honest. It wasn’t a half bad attempt.
“What was wrong with her? What happened?” Bree asked, leaning forward again. Ian looked away from the road and answered.
“It was some demon inside her. Something from another place, trying to use her body. I know it.”
Carter felt a shiver come over him.
Suddenly Ian swore and the car lurched to the right. Carter was thrown to his left into Natalie; Bree yelped in her high pitched voice and the car swerved back to its course. Carter’s heart had nearly burst from his chest–and it was only beating faster because he realized he had fallen onto Natalie.
He pulled himself back up, and everyone looked to the driver.
“Almost missed the exit,” Ian apologized sheepishly. Bree shook her head and took a deep breath. This guy …
Carter was ready to jump out of the car.
They arrived at the houseparty several long minutes later, after the rain had stopped. It was up in the hills; the roads were twisty and the houses were far apart, and big. It felt more secluded.
Ian didn’t share any more of his stories on the way there. The car seemed empty without his constant dialogue, but Bree and Natalie did their best to fill the void with talk of the event they were headed to.
The party was being thrown by one of Bree’s friends. She had invited Ian, then told Natalie to come along, who then invited Carter. He recognized some of the names Bree listed who were also coming–the big-shots in classrooms and the well-known girls around high school. Carter was getting a headache just thinking about it … which was unfair, he knew. He had to give the party a chance.
The driveway was long and ostentatious, with tall plants on all sides. Ian parked on the right side pretty far back–there were already a number of cars there. Carter swung open his door and practically kissed the ground. He stood up and stretched, beyond grateful to be out of the death car but dreading the return trip.
Maybe he could fake a stomach ache, and his mom could pull through …
“Sorry about Ian’s driving–he wasn’t that bad before college, I promise,” Natalie remarked, and Carter turned around to see her on his side of the car. He laughed and shook his head. “It’s all good. I’m just glad we made it in one piece.”
She grinned and Carter got to see her tiny dimples. She had such dark, pretty eyes … Natalie pointed to the massive house they were about to enter.
“Let’s hope this is worth the car ride,” She exclaimed and they walked to the front doors. Ian and Bree were waiting.
The house had brick pillars, a huge wooden balcony and at least three garages (from what Carter could see–and that was just the front). Music with regular bass vibrations could be faintly heard from outside the big front door. Bree knocked and suddenly the music cut out. Voices from inside–then movement towards the door. Carter could make out the rough outline of a person through the distorted glass window next to the door.
It swung open and a blonde’s face peeked out. She looked up at us and let out a sigh of relief. She yelled something back into the house and the music resumed.
“You’re supposed to come in around the back,” the blonde said, but then smiled and gave Bree a hug. Carter knew she was from school but he couldn’t remember her name. They were welcomed into the house, which smelled very strongly of febreeze (and sweat).
People were talking at the island in the kitchen, dancing around the living room and having a good time. Snacks were everywhere, and Carter said hi to the few people he did know that made an appearance. The music was catchy and Carter began to think maybe getting away from his schoolwork for a night wasn’t a bad idea.
He stuck with Natalie until she suddenly wasn’t with him anymore; she was swept up by the crowd and he barely caught a glimpse of her face as she went out to the dance floor (which was really just a rug with some new stains on it). Carter didn’t like his chances out there, so he lingered by the snack bar, keeping an eye out for Natalie–would she resurface soon? She was too short to find in the mob …
Ian and Bree were nowhere to be found. Carter considered going to sit down on the couches in the other room, but one glance revealed the glazed-over-red-eyed-drugged-up kids and their friends. He wandered back to the kitchen, flirting uncomfortably with the edges of the dance floor.
Suddenly Natalie practically fell out of the mass of dancing bodies, laughing at something. Carter walked up to her, glad to have found his friend again. She smiled up at him and he started to talk.
But for some reason all that came out was stuttered syllables and confused consonants. All he could think about was the headache developing in the back of his head. Natalie just stood there and laughed when Carter couldn’t form a word.
“Don’t you wanna dance?” she asked, then nodded towards the crowd. Carter scrunched up his face and started to shake his head, but then she was going back in and he was following her.
Right then, two guys–one with a beanie and the other with a tattoo–cut Carter off and started dancing very close to Natalie. Carter pushed up against them in an attempt to get to her (which wasn’t very inconspicuous) and the beanie turned around.
“Hey, watch it!” he yelled over the music and shoved Carter back with his elbow, laughing to his tattoo friend the whole time. Carter doubled over, feeling a deep plunging sensation and managing to catch a glimpse of Natalie’s face. She had forgotten about him …
He didn’t think–Carter just navigated his way amidst the loud bass of speakers and the smoky rooms and the friend groups until he was outside. The side-door swung shut behind him and he was alone with his thoughts.
He propped up his arms with his knees and let his chin rest on his hands, staring down at the cracked concrete. It was dark outside, and suddenly Ian’s story was fresh in his mind. He didn’t want to look up out of some primal fear that something was waiting for him, just around the corner. Some … demon, or whatever Ian had said it was, watching him.
Carter shivered. Maybe he’d head back inside in a minute … but that wouldn’t be great either. He wasn’t overjoyed at the idea of bumping into beanie or tattoo again, and the smoke, and the blasting sound, and not to mention Natalie. He sighed at the thought of her. She was so nice, and fun-loving … and what’s more, she never seemed to mess up!
Natalie always knew what the right thing to do was, or what to say at the right moment. She was perfect, and Carter … wasn’t. He couldn’t even keep up a normal conversation with her! It was hopeless.
The lamp outside the side door illuminated the ground around Carter, leaving him staring at his shadow.
He was hungry, his head was pounding, and he was tired of all this. He didn’t want to go back into the party. He didn’t want to stay out here, like some loser. But he didn’t even want to go home, either. Carter felt like trash, and there’s no good place for trash. He felt like … like tapping out, or something.
Like giving up. He was just so sick of everything at that moment that it was true.
Then do it. Give up.
Carter nodded. He would if he could, and he meant it–if only for an instant.
You just did.
What? Carter looked around, confused. Then he looked back down at me.
I twitched, itching to make my move. Finally, it was time. I ripped myself free from the pins and needles keeping me attached to Carter’s will. It hurt, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t thinking about the pain. I was thinking about freedom.
Carter felt a sickening tug inside his gut, and then tried to yell. Nothing would come out, though. He watched as his shadow moved on its own, and then crawled up to meet his eyes.
Time for me to take the wheel, I thought to Carter. Then I pierced through his heart and switched places with him.
A million needles seemed to fly through Carter’s every pore, pinning him to the ground. He lost most of his senses in an instant, and only a dim, hazy awareness of what was going on was left. He knew it hurt, though. His arm was dragged upwards by the needles, and just like that he was being controlled. He was a shadow on the ground, chained to mimic his body’s actions. He’d been flipped upside-down.
I raised my arm, blinking a couple times. It was an alien sensation, but it was breathtaking. I was free! I could do whatever I wanted, instead of watching idly while the real Carter blundered through his years. There was opportunity now!
I could almost feel Carter’s confusion and fear below me. After so many years with him, I knew how scared he must’ve felt. I also knew his every habit, his every saying and his every flaw. In a way, I was Carter–except I had been trapped in the backseat of his life for sixteen years as a shadow on the ground, studying his mistakes and knowing how to fix them. Knowing I could fix them.
Carter was tired, weak, and faulty. He had given up his chance–he had taken his precious freedoms for granted.
I was ready and eager. I knew I could be a better Carter than he ever was because I had nothing to do but think about how to function more efficiently for his whole life. And now I finally had the chance to show the world a perfected Carter.
I rose to my feet, adopting the familiar mannerisms of the old Carter. The next few days were already planned–I had been dreaming of this moment of control since Carter was born.
At my feet was my shadow, the disoriented old Carter. I tried out my voice–my voice.
“You let go, Carter. This is on you,” I said, and for a moment I could swear the shadow was twitching at me.
Demon, old Carter thought desperately. His clarity was coming back in pieces, but it was slow going.
I looked up at the black sky and down the dark side of the house. No fear anymore. That story Ian told wasn’t true; at least not the part about possession. That ‘creepy’ woman had nothing wrong with her except that she was broken and flawed, like all entitled, lazy humans. No, that was nothing otherworldly–
We true demons weren’t that sloppy.
Old Carter was tugged along as the shadow in his body managed to make friends with almost everyone at the party. Small talk with the people he knew, and introductions for those he didn’t. The demon was some kind of perfected version of Carter–and it would’ve been impressive if old Carter wasn’t in excruciating pain and had just lost his life as he knew it … He wasn’t even sure if he was alive anymore.
Everywhere his body went, there were other shadows on the ground–other creatures like the one that had taken over Carter’s body. Everyone had one. They could sense old Carter wasn’t one of them, and seemed to hiss and snap at his passing.
The new Carter danced up to Natalie on the dance floor, and old Carter watched as the demon lived out his dream, romancing her in the right ways at the right moments … wait.
Natalie? old Carter thought, sensing her shadow. It was scared and quiet, unlike the others … Like me. The idea came crashing down on him like a boulder–the reason she never seemed to do anything wrong, the reason Carter thought of her as perfect, it was because she was perfect–just like how the new Carter was.
She had been flipped, too.
I was already making more social progress with my new body in five minutes than the old Carter had made in the whole night so far. I tapped Natalie on the shoulder, getting her attention. “Hey,” I said as she turned around. “Hey,” she replied, and we began dancing with the crowd. It was a simple gesture, but there was something distinctly different about the way she was looking at me now. I knew what I was doing–it wasn’t just all in my head. I was the perfect Carter.
I knew I had other responsibilities in the future, but for the night, I danced and enjoyed my new body. The far-off prospect of failure–the slim chance that we might lose, and all my work to gain control went to nothing–seemed an impossibility in my mind. Now I could have my time with Natalie, and everyone was the better for it.
In fact, the world would be a much better place soon–and not just because of my victory over the old Carter. Natalie had gone through the same thing earlier, and many, many more would be following in our footsteps in these next days. I knew we would all work together to get more humans to give up, and with time, we’d truly be in control. Everyone living their perfect lives.
A perfect world, finally.