Cynthia killed Mr. Personality.
Smothered him lights out under Richard’s special neck pillow. He didn’t look dead, though. Just asleep. His punched-in Persian face all mellow. He lay in the center of a big pentagram she’d traced with her fingernail into the heavy pile of her bedroom rug, black candles lit at each of its five points. Cynthia half expected him to roll onto his back and start mewling for belly rubs.
Obviously, he didn’t.
Richard had given the kitten to mom on her fortieth. She’d loved it, of course. Such BS. Cynthia’s mom hated cats. That was a well-known fact. She thought they were the little sociopaths of the domestic animal kingdom. Not Mr. Personality, though. The way she’d propped him up in the air like baby Simba, squealing with delight; or, better yet, how she’d turned to Richard to tell him what a perfect gift her new kitten was... Ew.
Cynthia totally loathed Mr. Personality, but that wasn’t why she’d killed him. She wasn’t in the habit of expunging life from small, helpless creatures. From any creatures, actually. She wasn’t a psycho, okay? She’d had to do it. She was trying to summon a badass demon and the ritual called for a life. It wouldn’t work without one.
She read the incantation from her smartphone. It was in an ancient language. Sumerian, apparently. Super old magick, according to members of the demonolatry forum where she’d found it. She spoke the words with gravitas. Like how a stage actor might say them—with trills and shit.
For a moment, she felt something strange. As if someone were watching her. The candleflames danced around Mr. Personality even though there wasn’t a draft. Stuff was getting creepy.
Come to me, most maleficent one, she said, her voice all shaky.
She could feel the skin on the back of her neck tingling, like someone blowing on it. She squeezed her eyes shut. Waited. Hoped.
Cynthia had been dealing with some heavy shit lately. That heavy shit was named Richard. The guy was a total creep. He was into staring at her, but like aggressively.
He’d stare at her boobs. Her butt. Her legs. Sometimes he’d even stare straight at her face with a psycho tilt to his head. And always with a smirk that made her skin crawl.
It was extremely obvious, and not just to Cynthia, either. Mom had noticed it, too. And yet, somehow, Cynthia was to blame. Apparently, she was too friendly. Which struck her as straight up hilarious because on more than one occasion mom had given her an earful for not being friendly enough.
It was clear whose side mom was on. She was way too infatuated with Richard, that was the problem. Blinded by his cut yoga bod, manicured facial hair, and man bun.
And her fear of loneliness, obviously.
It all made Cynthia sick.
She’d tried confiding in her bestie Hailey, but Hailey didn’t get it because obviously hot guys couldn’t be creepy. It was simply impossible. They were hot, after all.
But he’s my mom’s boyfriend, Cynthia had said. Isn’t that like incest?
To this, Hailey had rolled her eyes, as if to say: girl, stop being so basic.
That isn’t incest, she’d answered. And even if it was, who cares. I’d be all for it.
Cynthia hadn’t told Hailey about the other stuff. It was too circumstantial. Like, for example, the mysterious disappearance of her underwear. And not just one pair, either. Many pairs. Enough for her to notice. Enough to send her a message. She knew Richard had done it, even if she didn’t have any actual proof. As far as she was concerned, panty stealing was totally a Richard kind of thing to do.
There weren’t many options available to a girl in Cynthia’s position. Thus, the whole demon summoning thing. It was a last-ditch effort.
Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be working. Cynthia frowned. Narrowed her eyes on Mr. Personality’s corpse.
Fuck, she muttered.
There was a noise. Something shifting, maybe. Cynthia tensed up. She thought: ohmygod, is it happening? It’s really happening. She slowly turned around, her heart leaping in her chest, her breath fast and shallow.
It was Richard. But he wasn’t supposed to be there. He was supposed to be at his studio, downward-dogging it up with limber empty nesters.
Oops, she thought. This isn’t good. This isn’t good at all.
Cyn…. he gasped, staring at the designer kitten corpse, at Cynthia, then back at the corpse again like they were two variables in a formula he couldn’t quite figure out. What have you done?
The question irritated her. Obviously, she’d killed the cat and was in the middle of a fucking ritual. The better question, as far as she was concerned, was: Why have you done this? To which she would’ve responded: to get rid of you, Richard!
She considered telling him a lie, but what could she say? Everything was there for him to see. So she locked eyes with him and shrugged. To her surprise, he didn’t freak out. Instead, he closed his eyes, took one of his ridiculous Pranayama breaths, and opened them again.
Okay, he declared.
Next thing she knew, he was crouched down next to her, pinching his chin with his thumb and index finger, pondering over Mr. Personality. He smelled like B.O. and patchouli. She winced.
We need to fix this, he said, frowning.
Collusion. Cynthia hadn’t expected that. She watched Richard suspiciously.
If your mom finds out about this, she’ll be devastated, he said.
It was true. She would be. Kitten killing was obviously bad. But it might also be evil. No parent wanted an evil child. If Cynthia’s mom learned about what she’d done, she wouldn’t just be heartbroken. She’d also be disgusted, which would only push her further into Richard’s arms. Cynthia wondered where that would leave her. Totally alone, she realized, and that was chilling.
Grab me a pillowcase, Richard said, pointing at Cynthia’s bed.
She resentfully did as she was told, and he scooped up Mr. Personality and placed him inside.
This is all very sad, he reflected, shaking his head. Your mom really did love him, you know.
Blood rushed to Cynthia’s face. Shame. Hot, prickly, complicated shame. Which got her feeling defensive. Angry, even. Who was Richard to guilt trip her? At the end of the day, he was just another random guy. That was all. Also, though, he had a point. Maybe that was what upset her so much. That he was kind of right.
Cynthia followed him downstairs, conflicted and confused. Richard was being very cool about everything. Very helpful. And it seemed like he was doing it for mom. To protect her from the truth of what she’d done. Which was selfless, in a way. It made Cynthia feel awful. She seriously started to question herself, which she wasn’t used to doing, and she didn’t like it. Had she been wrong about Richard this whole time?
They were in the garage. He set the pillowcase down on the tool bench and grabbed the garden trowel. Next, he opened the garage door. Soft, late-afternoon sunlight cut in as the door climbed. He poked his head outside, motioning for Cynthia to grab Mr. Personality and follow him.
They trudged across the backyard to mom’s garden. Richard was silent, focused. He found a hidden spot in the back, enclosed in the corner where the high fences intersected.
This’ll have to do, he said, staring at a spot in the middle of three bushy hostas. He began digging.
Cynthia wondered if they were bonding over this. If, years down the line, it was something they’d joke about: that fucked up time she killed Mr. Personality. Maybe she would tell him why she’d done it and he’d say something like: Jesus, Cyn—I’m really sorry. I didn’t know I made you feel that way….
Maybe she’d been too hard on him. And mom, too. They were only trying to live their best lives. Maybe, she thought, watching Richard work. Maybe this is what happiness looks like?
Richard got up from his knees and extended his hand. Cynthia passed him the pillowcase.
He buried Mr. Personality and flattened the soil with the back of the trowel. When he stood up, he brushed the dirt away from his leggings. She looked down at the unmarked grave.
I—I’m sorry. The words sort of slipped out of her mouth and it was as if the whole world had fallen quiet. Gone still.
It’s okay, Cyn, he finally said, and for the first time ever, his voice didn’t infuriate her. It was calm. Warm, even. She was stubborn, so of course she reminded herself how much she hated him, but the edge was gone, and as much as she hated him, she decided that maybe he also wasn’t so bad.
They walked back to the house side by side, and it grew darker and cooler as a cloud passed over the sun, casting a shadow over them.
What will you tell mom? Cynthia said.
Well, Cyn, he mused, that totally depends on you.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the blurry oval of his face turned toward her. He was studying her. She could feel it. And the weirdness set in, that icky naked feeling, which pissed her off and disappointed her all at once. Instead of avoiding his gaze until he was finished, she confronted it head on, and in doing so, she saw the truth.
It was out in the open, now. She could see it in his ugly smile and dead-looking eyes, in the way his dark eyebrows twitched. Cynthia searched for the trowel dangling from his hand. She fixated on it. How stupid she’d been, she realized. The trowel fell and stabbed into the grass, its handle stuck upright. Richard had dropped it. He’d confused her downward gaze for something else entirely, which was why he was playing with the waistband of his leggings. She kneeled, and he grunted nonsense but then she heard a word come cleanly from his mouth.
Yes, she said sweetly, gripping the trowel in her hand. Finally.