By the way, when I copied this, it deleted all my tabbing. So I tried inserting spaces in place of every single tab, but it deleted that after I'd already done all of them. Then I tried putting in line breaks for every new paragraph, but it deleted those post-hoc as well. So (after twenty minutes of trying to fix it... DX) this will still look like one giant, very daunting block of text. My sincerest apologies.
There was once a girl named Cinnamon Lynn Sanders. She had incredibly long red hair. It was her favorite thing about herself—Mama had always told her she had magic hair.
She had a best friend, a boy whose name was Brian McAlister. They were both eight, but she was a month older than he was, so she told him with all the surety of an eight-year-old that she would keep him safe since he was so young.
It was October twenty-fourth, a warm, welcoming day in Atlanta. Cinnamon and Brian were climbing trees in Cinnamon’s back yard, Cinnamon’s red hair the color of a ripe tomato in the loud sunlight. Brian’s smile was wider than the soft-banked creek out in the woods, because they were dangling upside-down from the boughs of one of the trees, now, and Brian thought Cinnamon looked goofy with her face all red like that.
“You look silly,” he laughed. “Really silly, Cinn.”
“Don’t call me Cinn,” said Cinnamon. “Mama says it sounds like ‘sin’ and that the Devil’s gonna hear you and snatch you up.”
“The Devil can’t hear me,” Brian said. “The Devil doesn’t bother listening to people. Cinn, Cinn, CINN CINN CINN!”
Cinnamon laughed, sitting back up. The blood drained from her face, and she swung her feet back and forth. “Brian, don’t. Even if the Devil isn’t listening, my mom might be.”
Brian shivered with terror. “Wow, even worse.”
“Hey!” Cinnamon laughed, the noise high and clear, cutting through the breeze.
“You’ve got a pretty laugh,” said Brian, smiling at her. “Have I said that before?”
“No. But thanks.”
They climbed down the tree, the grey bark scratching at the soft skin of their palms.
“What do you want to do?” asked Brian, sitting down on the grass. Cinnamon looked at the gold hair falling into his eyes. She thought it was cute. She always noticed when his hair did that, and he always looked at her the same way from under the blond locks, shyly, happily.
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?” Cinnamon didn’t want to sit down, because the grass might stain her nice new jeans, so she leaned against the tree and thought she looked cool. Like those eleven-year-olds who lived down the street. She couldn’t wait until she was eleven. She’d know everything by the time she was eleven.
Brian blew his hair out of his eyes. Then, suddenly, he brightened. Leaping to his feet, he said, “I have a great idea! Let’s play soccer!”
“Okay. I don’t have a ball, though.”
“I do, at my house. Should we go get it?”
Cinnamon made a face. Brian lived all the way across the street. First of all, that was a pretty long walk, and second of all, Mama always said not to cross the street. “Can’t we do something else?”
“No,” insisted Brian. “We gotta play soccer, Cinn, we gotta. I can teach you everything I learned on my team.”
“Is your team good?”
Brian drew himself up to his full four foot seven. “Good? We’re the best in the league!”
“How many teams are there?”
Brian started to walk toward the street. “Come on, it’ll just take a second.”
“Okay,” sighed Cinnamon, and she walked after him.
They reached the curbside, looked left, looked right, and looked left again. But then something caught Brian’s eye. “Oh, look!”
“It’s a snail.”
“Look at its shell, though! It’s a special snail! I’m going to name him Oliver.” Brian glowed with delight as he picked up the snail from the gutter. Cinnamon felt fascinated. That snail was so squelchy and slimy... but Mama said not to touch bugs.
Then, without checking both ways, Brian started to walk backward across the street, beckoning for her to come too. “Come on, Cinn.”
“BRIAN!” shrieked a voice, and Cinnamon whirled around. Her mother was standing by the door to the house and yelling louder than she’d ever heard her yell—but there was another sound behind her, a worse sound—
The high-pitched scream of an eight-year-old boy—
The rush of a car—
Then the worst sound that had ever been made, the sound of something so wrong it should never have happened—
Cinnamon didn’t know how her mother got there so fast, but she was there before Cinnamon could turn around. Her mother was breathing fast—so fast—and was repeating, “Oh-God-oh-God-oh-God,” over and over and over.
Cinnamon shouted, “Brian!” She fought against her mother’s hands, trying to turn around to see what had happened, if he was okay, but she wasn’t strong enough.
After that day she spent a lot of time inside. Her mother told her that Brian was very badly hurt. Cinnamon asked if she could see him, but her mother said, “That… that isn’t going to be possible, honey.”
After that, Mom and Dad always looked like they were on the verge of tears, but Cinnamon didn’t understand why. He’d get better, of course, right?
One day, Halloween night, she was standing in the doorway to the kitchen and she heard her parents’ conversation.
“We can’t keep lying to her—”
Her mother interrupted. “She’s eight years old; of course we have to—and technically we’re not lying, his family hasn’t taken him off support, they’re holding out—”
Cinnamon heard her father’s sigh. “Carol, be realistic.”
“But… but we can’t say he’s—we can’t tell her she’s never going to see—” Her mother’s voice cracked, and Cinnamon darted out of sight.
Cinnamon wondered why this was happening.
She walked out of the house and toward the woods in the back yard, down through the horizontal rays of the sunset, feeling her way through the red light. Her hair glowed, cherry like fresh-blown glass, and in the forest, nothing felt real.
The creek water was cool, and it swirled around, mixing like the currents of a million tiny whirlpools, cascading over the pebbles beneath the surface.
Cinnamon refused to cry. She was pretty sure she knew what her parents had been talking about. Brian had gone away. He had left her alone. He probably hated her because she’d let him get hit by a car.
Cinnamon traced a stick through the creek, tucking her hair behind her ear. The water seemed to glow, too, like it was aflame. And, just for a second, Cinnamon thought she saw a shape behind her in the reflection. A tall, dark shape. But when she turned around, there was nothing.
She threw the stick at the water, shattering the fire, and she felt like crying. Brian hated her.
But he’d always said he liked her. He wouldn’t hate her for just one thing, would he? Even though being hit by a car must have hurt a lot.
Did this mean the last thing he would have ever said to her was ‘Come on, Cinn’? That wasn’t right at all, it should have been something like ‘We’ll be friends forever.’ Something more exciting. Something from the heart.
A weird feeling came over Cinnamon. Brian wouldn’t have just left her. They were best friends… but why else would he be gone? Why else would she never see him again, like her mother had started to say?
Cinnamon’s brown eyes widened. The Devil. Brian’s last word to her had been ‘Cinn’—it had finally happened! The Devil had come and snatched Brian up!
Oh, no. What would she do? She had to save him! But how could she get to where the Devil was?
Cinnamon squatted in the soft dirt by the river, and she peered in, looking at her reflection. “I need to find a way down,” she whispered to herself. “I need to know how to get there.”
She felt frightened for just one second. The Devil was a very powerful, very scary person. How did she stand a chance?
Her feet squished into the mud, and she whispered, “Please. I need to save Brian.”
Something lurched under her feet. She jumped, wide-eyed, staring around. “Hello?”
Then she looked back into the river. Her reflection was smiling at her. But she wasn’t smiling. And the reflection’s voice, burbling like liquid gold, spoke. “Dig, Cinnamon. And hurry.”
Cinnamon nodded and looked around. The sunset was almost over, but it illuminated a big, flat rock very near her. She picked it up and dug it into the mud, hauling the dirt over into the creek.
The rays of sunlight started to peter out. It seemed there was only one left when Cinnamon hit something solid.
She pulled at the dirt around the rock, her heart beating quickly. Was Brian right there, below her feet?
But no—it was a door. A stone door. And on its surface was carved some letter Cinnamon didn’t know. It wasn’t a good letter. It looked dirty, looked wrong, looked twisted and evil. Of course the Devil would live behind that letter.
The knob was just a scooped-out indentation in the stone. Cinnamon’s small pale fingers grappled with it, tugging, pulling, and the door slid to the side little by little. She gritted her teeth and yanked until she thought her arms were going to fly out of her shoulders, and then, when the door was all the way pulled, the last ray of sunset faded away. And, with the onset of dusk, what was below started to glow a bright, menacing green.
The steps downward looked gritty, slippery and dangerous. Cinnamon looked around the woods. Had this been here her whole life? The number of times she and Brian had played in this creek, and she’d never known the Devil had been right there. He’d probably heard Brian calling her Cinn then, too. Should she get her mother? Surely Mama would know what to do facing the Devil.
Cinnamon shook her head a bit to herself, her red hair rustling in the silent night air. Then she frowned. Was it always this quiet? It sounded like all the bugs and birds had stopped breathing.
She stepped down into the hole, into that dark pitted entrance, and as she lowered herself down the stairs, the door behind her slid shut with a dull thump.
Cinnamon stared up at the cold stone entrance and felt like crying for a second. Did this mean she couldn’t get out? Was it locked now? Would the hole fill itself back in?
But she didn’t cry. She was here to find Brian.
The green light was coming from somewhere far beyond these stairs. Cinnamon reached down with her foot, feeling the steps, making sure they were safe.
It was colder than winter’s heart in the passageway. Cinnamon trailed her fingers over the walls, as if to remind herself she was real. The air hummed, almost, and that light was too intense to focus on, and as Cinnamon looked down at her long red hair she saw that it looked like an ordinary brown in that green light. It was unsettling.
The air got thicker and warmer and Cinnamon stopped shivering. Her eyes narrowed as she stumbled down the steps into that green light.
The air seemed even thicker, now, like it was curling its arms around her. Cinnamon felt warm and welcomed, and she even smiled a bit to herself, although she thought it was strange. Why would the Devil be in such a nice place? She kept her eyes on the steps below her feet, which glistened in the light, but if she looked up she would be blinded.
She thought she heard a voice. A familiar voice. Don’t look up.
“Brian?” she whispered.
Don’t look up, Cinn.
Maybe it was just her imagination. But now she was struck with all the insatiable curiosity of a young child. What was the green light, anyway? And why wouldn’t Brian want her to look at it? If she looked up, would she see him there, talking to her? She could tell him she was sorry…
But she kept her eyes fixed on the ground.
The steps ended. A passage began.
Don’t make a sound.
Cinnamon bit her lip. It was stretching her to the limit not to take the tiniest little peek. The light seemed to be lessening, now, though she didn’t get how that was possible. If she’d been swimming in it just seconds ago, should the source be near?
Then she took in a sharp breath. A rat slouched its way across the narrow path in front of her. She walked around it, staring at it in fascination, but then there was another, this one twice as large as the last.
Then all sorts of vermin started to stream around her feet, obscuring the black cracked stone of the passage. The bugs started to crawl up her jeans, and the filth clinging to the rats’ fur wiped itself onto the denim. Cinnamon felt dismayed. These were her new jeans.
She’d never seen so many animals close to each other before, and especially not ones that were so huge. A spider that must have been the size of her face prodded its way across the sea of worms, rats, forearm-sized centipedes—
Cinnamon waded through them, her feet feeling damp. She didn’t know whether to be afraid. She didn’t feel afraid, at least. Were any of these animals dangerous? Rats were dirty and diseased, right? Mama always got scared when she saw spiders, and snakes, too, but Cinnamon didn’t know why. She’d never had a problem with insects.
The air swarmed with huge, bristling hornets. Cinnamon reached out to touch one. She’d never touched a bee, or a hornet, before, because Mama had said to keep away from them, but she didn’t see why. They weren’t hurting her. They were just there.
Cinnamon smiled a bit to herself. Maybe it was good that she hadn’t taken Mama with her—her mother would have been frightened out of her wits for no reason at all.
That first rat, the one that she had avoided, was still scurrying along beside her. Cinnamon frowned, knelt by it, and petted it. Brian’s voice had told her not to speak, but it didn’t mean she couldn’t make a new friend. This rat was so big it reminded her of her dog.
The rat glanced up at her with shining eyes, stopping dead. All the other life squirmed around them, but the two were an island of stillness. Cinnamon liked the damp feeling of the rat’s fur. It was softer than it looked.
The rat’s mouth opened the tiniest bit, and Cinnamon’s eyes widened as it whispered to her. “Refuse the offer.”
Then it scurried away too quickly for her to follow. Cinnamon straightened up, keeping her eyes on the floor, and kept walking.
The only thing that frightened her was the slowly-falling darkness. And, as the darkness crept in, the animals crept out. Cinnamon felt lonely. And cold, again.
And the voice.
Look up. Don’t look down again.
Cinnamon looked up, something in her crying out in delayed satisfaction. But there was nothing of note. She was walking down a hallway, the black rock walls cracked by gnarled roots, the ceiling emitting a faint white glow. Her feet carried her down the hall, and even as she stared at the ceiling, it vanished.
The rock ended, and then around her was a curve of water, with blurry shapes looming behind its veil. Cinnamon wanted to reach out and touch the water, but something told her that would be a bad idea.
She didn’t know where the light was coming from now. It was blue all around, dyed by the hue of the water.
Cinnamon wondered why she wasn’t supposed to look down. She wondered why the Devil made it so hard to find him.
Then a shadow came particularly close to the edge of the water, and Cinnamon caught a glimpse of jagged teeth and wicked black eyes. The shark started following her, and soon it was joined by other creatures—a huge, curling squid; a leering hammerhead; a wide-mouthed, bulging-eyed toad; a flat, plate-eyed grouper. Each was bigger than she would ever be. And none ever took their gaze from her.
The sea monsters curled close around her, and the tunnel of water started to constrict. Cinnamon almost looked down at the floor, but she stopped herself and took in a deep breath. These animals didn’t look very nice, but as long as the water didn’t close in completely—
Cinnamon started walking faster, keeping her eyes fixed on the navy fathoms above her head.
The watery tunnel stopped closing in when it was a foot from her on all sides. The huge creatures were so close she could feel the currents they were creating. Cinnamon almost wanted to dive in—she loved the water. Her father hated it, though. He wouldn’t even go on boats, he was so scared of deep water.
Cinnamon raised a hand in a greeting to the fish, and she thought she saw them falter for a moment, as if they were puzzled. Cinnamon wondered if they knew where Brian was.
Then the twining tentacles of the squid rose around her. Cinnamon stared in fascination as they formed dark letters—they had just learned cursive in language arts—that sprawled across the white underbelly of the hammerhead.
Then the word vanished as she burst free of the tunnel. The stone was back, and now it was washed in flickering red light. This definitely looked like the Devil’s territory.
Cinnamon looked around at the tunnel again, and then the floor, her neck aching. She forced herself to think of Brian. She was close. She had to be close. It felt like she’d been walking for days and days already.
Shut your eyes, said that voice in her head. It sounded more and more like Brian the more she thought about it, and she shut her eyes unthinkingly. He would never lead her astray.
So she walked blind through screams, through the beautiful trickling sound of running water, through maniacal laughter and through beautiful music. She kept her eyes shut and her heart hopeful, blocking everything out.
Brian playing kickball.
Brian crying after I beat him at chess.
Brian falling out of the tree.
Brian teaching me my four-times-tables.
Brian giving me a Valentine.
Brian saying, “The Devil doesn’t bother listening to people.”
And it didn’t seem too long before the other sounds faded, and then Cinnamon heard,
“Open your eyes.” It was Brian’s voice. At last.
Yet she paused. “But… you said—”
“Come on, just open them.”
Cinnamon’s eyelids opened slowly. Very slowly.
Brian stood in front of her, smiling. “You found me.”
“Are you okay? How long have you been here?” Cinnamon felt uneasy. They were standing in a massive stone room, one with red fires in floating braziers, one with steaming cracks in the floor. She didn’t like it. She’d felt fine all the way through the tunnel, but now…
“Don’t worry about that,” Brian said. “Come on, we have to get back.”
Cinnamon stared at him. “Is it that easy? We just go back through?”
Brian shrugged. “I guess it is, Cinnamon.”
Cinnamon? He hadn’t called her by her full name for a year now. But then his hair fell into his eyes, and Cinnamon opened her mouth with a jolt of realization. The way he was looking at her… it wasn’t the same. Not at all. That usual kind, shy look was gone—those blue eyes looked sneaky. Evil.
“Get away from me! You’re not Brian!” Cinnamon yelled, and she shoved whatever terrible thing this was. No one should pretend to be Brian. Never.
So it was a relief when the fake Brian swelled, growing, growling, eventually standing eight feet tall and coal-black, with fevered yellow eyes. Such a relief. At least Satan wasn’t pretending any more. He had blocky legs—she couldn’t tell how many in the darkness—and six twisted horns spiraling from his head. “Good. Very good, for an inferior little mortal.”
“What did you do with Brian?” Cinnamon said, her voice high and defiant. Her heart beat fast, but she wasn’t scared. No, not a bit. Just angry. So angry.
“What did I do with the boy?” Satan’s voice was everything horrible at the same time. It was that tone Cinnamon’s mother always used when she was upset. It was the voice of the preacher at church when he announced someone had… had died. It was the sound of Brian’s father yelling at his mother like he always did, and it was the sound of trees toppling and metal screeching. And it was low. Deep.
Cinnamon drew herself up, her brown eyes burning like the fire in Satan’s hands. “Yes. I asked what you did with him. I know you have him.”
“Oh, you’re so sure, are you?” crackled Satan’s laughter. “Listen. I’ve got a deal for you.”
Cinnamon paused, narrowing her eyes. “A deal?”
“Yes. I admire you, young one. Not many would have made it through to here, so I’ll offer you that boy you want. A trade.”
She didn’t know whether to trust him. His face was craggy and rocky, and he didn’t look human at all. There weren’t any emotions there she could see. “For what?”
“Your hair.” He reached out a hand, the fire at his fingertips curling at her red hair. They were identical hues.
Cinnamon thought about it for a moment, but then she remembered the rat. It had warned her about this! It had told her, “Refuse the offer.”
“No!” she burst out, and slapped away Satan’s hand. It burned when she touched him.
Cinnamon crossed her arms. “I don’t have to give you anything. I came all the way here, and you shouldn’t have taken Brian in the first place. In fact, you should be giving me something for making me walk all that way!”
Satan laughed, and laughed, and laughed. “Oh, I like you. I like you a lot, for a pathetic human,” he rumbled. “When we meet again, I think I’ll have a word with the man upstairs about putting you on my staff.”
Cinnamon had no idea what he was talking about. Then Satan tapped his chin and said, “All right. You said you wanted something—I’m a generous, generous person. What would you like, Cinnamon?”
She was taken aback. Giving wasn’t something the Devil was supposed to do. “Anything?”
“Anything at all, except your friend.”
She opened her mouth. It had to be something that would help her get Brian back. But what could that be?
As a spiral of steam gushed from one of the cracks in the floor, Cinnamon remembered what the squid’s tentacles had read. Horns.
“I want those horns off your head,” she said, pointing. “I like them. Maybe I’ll hang them on the Christmas tree.”
She could see him freeze. He didn’t want to give them to her, no. Not at all.
But eventually he twisted the six horns from his skull, just like how her father took a screw out of a piece of wood. And he handed them to her.
Cinnamon turned them over in her hand. Their edges were razor-sharp. She almost cut her finger. Why would the squid tell her to take these? How would they help? “Thank you,” she said quietly. “They’re very pretty.”
“All right. But I still can’t give you your friend,” said the Devil.
Cinnamon swallowed. “How about a test, then?”
She could see his yellow eyes filling up with self-assured pride. “What kind?”
“I’ll ask you a question. I’ve already told you the answer to it three times. All you have to do is answer right, and I’ll leave.” Cinnamon hoped she was doing the right thing. More steam rose up around the Devil’s face, wafting up from those gaps in the ground.
“And if I get it wrong?”
“Then you give me my friend and show us the way out.”
Cinnamon could tell he wanted to say no. He desperately wanted to say no. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was too arrogant. “Fine,” he spat.
Cinnamon smiled and twisted a lock of her hair. “What is my friend’s name?”
The Devil doesn’t bother listening to people. And Brian never lied.
She felt like she stood there for hours as the Devil pondered what he was going to say. And, in the end, when he opened his mouth, she felt the ground shake. He was angry.
Cinnamon’s heart leapt in excitement.
“Fine,” hissed the Devil, and he lifted a hand. One of the fissures in the ground split wide, and out of the red steam rose a body. A small, familiar body.
Brian landed in front of Cinnamon. As his feet touched the ground, he came back to life. He smiled at Cinnamon, walked to her, and took her hand.
Cinnamon felt joy rush through her. Her best friend was back. “Now show us the way out. You said you would.”
The Devil had what might have been a smirk on that dark, blocky face. “I will show you the way out. You have fun getting there.”
He raised a hand, and a column of fire erupted from the floor. When it subsided, there was a golden ladder dangling in the air, stretching all the way up into the darkness. But it was ten feet above their raised hands.
The Devil laughed. Cinnamon had never heard something so foul-sounding. It was like a curse word all by itself. Then he said, “I’ve got some errands to run. I have faith you’ll be here for a while. I’ll be back.”
He vanished. Like he had never been there.
The first thing Cinnamon did was to hug Brian tighter than she ever had before. He had that familiar smile, that kind smile, on his face.
“What are we going to do?” she said.
Brian looked up. “We’ve got to get a way up to the ladder.”
Cinnamon frowned. “Well, we need something to get up there. A rope, or another ladder, or something.”
Brian’s eyes widened. “Cinn,” he said, “your hair! We can make a rope out of your hair!”
Cinnamon bit her lip. “Would that work?”
“We have to try, at least.”
She swallowed and nodded. “Okay.”
She hefted one of the Devil’s horns in her hand and started to saw through her hair. But she hadn’t even gotten a fourth of the way through before the horn disintegrated into black dust in her palm.
Cinnamon went through four more, leaving only one, before finishing. She put the last one into her jeans pockets.
The mass of hair felt strange in her hands, like she was holding her own head. But Brian put a hand on it, and she knew it would be okay. “Come on,” he said. “We’ve got to tie this together.”
Hair had never held together like Cinnamon’s did then. The burnt, sliced ends seemed to repair themselves, latching onto other strands.
Magic hair, Mama called it.
And after a while they had a long, long rope.
Brian threw it a couple of times before it caught on the ladder’s bottom rung and slipped through to the other side. Then they climbed up, slipping only a couple times.
“Come on!” whispered Brian gleefully. “We’re out! Come on!”
They started to climb the ladder’s rungs. But before they could get too far, Cinnamon heard a terrible roaring noise.
The Devil had returned.
She heard a massive thud, and glanced down at the Devil. He had catapulted himself up into the air.
Without thinking, Cinnamon drew the horn from her jeans pocket and threw it at him.
It spun, and spun, and struck him right in the forehead.
He fell back to the ground with a smash. The fissures in the ground finally connected, and the floor ruptured completely, turning the ground into a sea of flame.
“Go!” Cinnamon yelled.
She and Brian climbed like they had never climbed trees in their lives. The golden ladder reached up past the fiery braziers, into a world of ink night, into a world where there was nothing but the sound of their breathing and the dim glow of the ladder—
And then, at the top, a door.
A door woven out of grass. A door with a letter—but it wasn’t that twisted, evil letter. It was the letter ‘A’.
Brian reached out and opened it.
They climbed out into the world. But as the grass fell back into place behind her, Cinnamon realized she was in the woods. And she was alone, and dusk was still darkening into night.
She looked around. “Brian?” she whispered. “Are you there?”
There was no reply but the chirping of the bugs.
And then—and then she let herself cry. At last.
Cinnamon Lynn Sanders cried all the way back home.
But when she walked through the door, Mama was crying, too.
“Why are you crying, Mama?” she sobbed.
Her mother held her tight. “Oh, honey,” she cried, “Cinn, honey, Brian woke up. It’s all okay again. It’s all going to be okay.”
“What do you mean he woke up?”
Mama held her at arm’s length and looked her in the eye, tears streaming down her face. “Brian’s back.”
Cinnamon wiped the tears from her eyes and she didn’t think she would ever cry again. She smiled, smiled, smiled. “Oh.”
And then her mother’s jaw dropped, and her eyes traced over Cinnamon’s face. “Honey… what did you do to your hair?”