Who Called You? (from D is for Demons)
Aunt Tillie’s house was a gorgeous gray Queen Anne with hideous green trim. I felt a lustful pride of ownership that I immediately tried to tamp down. Dark ivy crept up to the house and edged the stone stairway. A giant rat ran out from beneath the ivy’s low cover and directly across my path. I told myself that it wasn’t bad luck, a rat was hardly a black cat. I straightened my back and marched bravely up the steps.
My boxes had been delivered earlier, or so I hoped, as I did not see them on the porch. I carried only two large suitcases with my immediate necessities. Despite my lack of a magic umbrella, I felt somewhat like Mary Poppins.
I rang the bell first so as not to scare the children, then I tried the knob, excellent, the door was locked as it should be. I fit my key into the lock and entered the house. Immediately, I felt dizzy.
I needed air. I fumbled for the knob behind me.
But once I’d gone in the door, I found I couldn’t go back out, partly because the knob simply wouldn’t turn but mostly because I couldn’t leave the three dear children that stood immediately before me.
Though I’d never seen them before, they were my cousins, and as they were much younger than I, on her death, Aunt Tillie had entrusted their care to me, along with the house, and her cat.
To clarify, I understood that two of them were my cousins, I had no idea who the other child could be. And, never having seen them before, I had no idea which of them was not my cousin. To further complicate matters, two gray cats, not the single cat mentioned in Aunt Tillie’s will, circled around my ankles.
I dropped my luggage. The cases must have landed on one of the cats, it hissed and howled and bit my ankle; then they both raced up the staircase their little feet pounding on each step to match the staccato in my chest as the adrenaline coursed through the chambers of my heart. Blood ran from two fresh gashes on my leg.
“I need to sit down.” I reached for the children, hoping they would steady me, perhaps lead me to a chair. Still staring into my face, not even looking down at my wound, they backed away. I staggered through to the back of the house, where I found the kitchen. I wet a dish towel and tied it around my ankle; then, I soaked and squeezed out a dishrag and fell into a retro plastic chair at the Formica-topped table.
I put the dishrag on my forehead. It smelled like a dead rat, so I threw it back across the room into the sink.
My phone rang in my pocket.
“Yes?” I said as if I’d grabbed a lifeline.
“Tab, is it you? You sound different.” It was my best friend, Mary.
“Oh, my goodness, it’s so good to hear your voice. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve walked into here. I need reinforcements. Come quick,” I blathered.
“Tab, is it you? You sound different,” Mary’s voice repeated.
“Mary? Can you hear me? It is me. This is Tab,” I shouted into the phone.
“Tab, is it you? You sound different.” No matter what I said, Mary’s voice repeated the same phrase over and over again. Finally, I hung up and tried calling her back. I got that horrible sound you get when a fax machine connects.
I tried everyone in my contact list and finally the number for an emergency, all with the same result—that horrible high screech in my ear.
And the three children, not two as there should have been, stood in the doorway and stared at me.
“Alright, it’s time for you to go home now.” I tried not to look at any one child. “Playtime is over, it’s time for just our family to be alone, we have, ah, family matters to discuss. Please go home now, you can come back tomorrow.”
None of the children made a move to leave.
I stood up, put my hands on my hips, and stared down at them, “Okay, now. Which one of you is not Aunt Tillie’s child?” Slowly they lifted their faces until they were all three staring solemnly into my face again. This was getting me nowhere, but I had an idea.
I circled around the children and darted about the rooms in the front of the house. Surely there would be family pictures showing off the children, standing with the awards for their accomplishments, in the living room, the dining room, or the study. No, not one photo. I searched the drawers of the desk – except for the one that was locked, I’d explore that one later.
The children stood in the study doorway as I finished. I skirted around the dears, careful not to brush against them. For some reason, I abhorred the thought of touching these silent children.
Failing to spot a light switch, I started to run up the dark staircase when finally, I heard a child’s high, thin voice, “The stairs are broken, use Aunt Tillie’s elevator.”
I felt cold fingers grasp my wrist and guide me back down and to the side. Then I heard the creaking of metal, the grinding of gears, and a door sliding open. I was pushed by those same small fingers, and once again, I heard the door slide, the grinding and creaking. Then the elevator stopped. I felt the walls. I was trapped. All four walls around me were solid. I couldn’t breathe. The children had tricked me.
“Push the door open.” The high, thin voice again, followed by several voices united in breathless giggles.
I felt the walls again, pushing each one until finally, one gave. Then I was out, and I could breathe again.
I walked down the darkened hallway, watching out for dark shapes on the floor that might be the sharp-toothed cats or dark shapes pressed against the walls that could be my giggling cousins – or the one that isn’t.
Then I felt along the walls, opened all the doors, and fumbled for more light switches all to no avail. Was it possible the only way to turn on the lights in this house could be by chains hanging from the fixtures in the ceilings at the center of every room?
Placing each foot carefully lest I step on or trip over a cat or other random object, perhaps pushed into my path by a mischievous cousin, I held one arm up. I waved it through the air at the ceiling as I walked toward what I believed was the middle of the first room.
They let me do this for three rooms.
In the third room, they pushed me into a closet and slammed the door.
I heard them arguing outside.
“I said the balcony,” one said in a husky whisper.
“No. We can’t do that; we need Cousin Tab alive,” the somewhat natural child’s voice replied.
“Just push her off the balcony, I’ll take care of you,” the first, the husky voice, said.
“Oh, no, please, no.” It was the high, thin voice. My savior from the stairs, my little friend of the elevator, cried. “Don’t do that.”
So that was the three, if they’d speak, I could tell them apart. So here I was in the closet and glad of it, who knows what a fall from the balcony might have entailed.
I was sure the husky whisperer didn’t belong here, and the cat that bit me should go home too.
They pulled me from the closet and tied me to a chair in front of a mirror.
Then I noticed I was sitting in the center of a pentagram surrounded by lit candles. A butcher knife lay at my feet.
The children were sitting cross-legged outside the circle, chanting. Their faces remained hidden in dark hoodies.
“Stop it! Stop it! Be quiet already. What do you think you’re doing?” I was very uncomfortable with this situation.
The children, three, where there should have been two, looked up, and I could see their little round faces in the light. The candles reflected in their eyes, and they looked like polaroid snapshots where everyone’s eyes are bright red like demons.
“Untie me, blow out those candles. What if those cats come in here and tip the candles over? Blow them out immediately.” It was as if they didn’t hear a word I said, so I screamed, “Untie me! Blow the candles out! Scatter this pentagram! What do you think you’re doing! You don’t know what you’re doing. Stop this foolishness. Right now.”
“We can’t. Bendix told us what you did,” the one with the most normal child-like voice said.
“What? What did I do?” I was beginning to feel cornered.
“You summoned him to kill Aunt Tillie so you could have her money and her house,” the normal voice said.
“No, I didn’t.” I squirmed in the chair.
“Yes, you did,” Husky voice challenged me.
“How would you know?” I began to feel cocky as I had been working the bonds on my hands, and they were quite loose now.
“I’m Bendix.” His voice seemed to deepen.
“So, you’re confessing to killing Aunt Tillie?” I felt kind of bright, outsmarting the child at his own game. The cats strutted into the room.
His laughter shook the house, “No. I made a deal with her instead.”
“You kids are just too silly. This has been fun; we’ll play it again someday. Untie me now, and we’ll go out to dinner. Hamburgers? Pizza? Anything you like.”
“No. I’m sorry,” the sweet one with the thin, little voice came toward me with the butcher knife, “we just need a little of your blood.”
“Get a lot.” Husky voice really had it in for me.
“Okay. Stop. What deal did you make with Aunt Tillie? I can do better. It’s true, it’s all true.” I’d play their game a little longer.
Apparently, the sweet one was surprised at my admission. Of course, she hadn’t actually believed that I had made Bendix kill Aunt Tillie, but I sounded so convincing, she dropped the knife.
As the blade hit the floor, it displaced enough of the pentagram to make a small opening in the circle. None of them, not even the demon Bendix, had noticed that I had freed my hands. I jumped up and dashed through the opening, kicking cats and candles out of my way. Now it didn’t matter what deal he’d made with Aunt Tillie, and I didn’t want the house or her money any longer, I just wanted out of here, away from these wild knife-wielding children.
I wasn’t getting in that creaky elevator again; I didn’t trust them. Children like these might stop the lift and keep me pinned in there until I starved to death. And I wasn’t wandering from room to room in the dark looking for a way out until they pushed me off the balcony.
All I wanted now was to get out of this house alive. I didn’t believe that the stairs weren’t safe. I’d heard the cats’ little feet bound up them step by step. I’d take the stairs; I’d just be careful. It was an unfortunate choice.
I grasped the railing and tapped each stair before I put my weight on it, but my legs were shaking, unsteady, and I was easy game for the children when they ran down the steps behind me and pushed me once again.
I tumbled down the stairs, then I grabbed a shaky baluster and righted myself thinking, Ha! I’ve outwitted the little vermin.
As I put my full weight on the tread, I felt it begin to totter up and down beneath and into the riser above it, then I heard the stringer separate from the wall. I flailed my arms as I heard nails squealing as they tore from wood, old lathe splitting, and plaster crumbling on top of it all.
I fell through the staircase as if I were a piece of meat in a butcher shop, the splintered wood sliced my hips and my legs leaving gashes and long sticky gouges that didn’t even hurt, at first.
The cold, wet cement floor of the basement felt good on my cuts and bruises. Again, that was only temporary abeyance of the pain to come. I lay, unmoving, knowing that with movement, this welcome lack of sensation might change. Then I heard a low hissing and ominous gurgling.
I held my breath and listened carefully. It seemed to be a living thing.
The sounds, its breath.
The floor was growing colder and harder, and I was beginning to feel my pain, but I dared not move.
Then it began shuffling around the edges of the basement, sniffling, as if it could not see me nor detect my presence. I kept my breath shallow and quiet.
It was making circles around the basement floor, drawing closer to me with every loop. Soon it would be upon me. I tried to rise. I winced. My chest. If a bone was poking through my lungs, I shouldn’t move, but what choice did I have?
The creature was right above me now. It looked like a log in the fire when it’s almost spent, charcoal with orange embers beneath. Drool of orange embers fell from its mouth onto my body. Each spark burned hotter than ashes, yet I dared not start nor call out. Its eyes were the thinnest of dark slits, no wonder it couldn’t see me. Fingernails like hot, sharp knives fanned through the air.
“I know you’re there. It takes a demon to know one.” It was trying to call me out. Playground taunts wouldn’t work on me. I could outlast it. I pictured myself next week, sipping a margarita in the sand while I got a tan under a Caribbean sun.
Wait, that light wasn’t a Caribbean sun. I opened my eyes. The children were shining a flashlight down through the hole in the stairs directly onto my body.
I intended to hold my arm in the direction of the light and block it with my outstretched hand as I yelled, “Stop!” then I would jump up and knock the demon on his keister while looking for the basement stairs up which I would beat a hasty retreat.
Actually, I raised my elbow an inch off the floor, mumbled “Stup.” Wiggled my body like a caterpillar stuck in a cobweb and started to cry. The demon growled and blew hot air up the hole in the floor at the children. I could hear them as they ran away, screaming.
I waited in the dark.
Then I felt his hands on me as if he were trying to discover precisely what I was, what use I might be to him. Food, perhaps? He licked my face tentatively. He ran a finger through the blood on my leg. Twice. I think he liked the taste. Not a good sign.
“You’re a demon, like me?” he finally asked.
What was the right answer? If I said yes, would we be pals, or would we have to fight to the death for the territory? Should I throw the children to the wolves, so to speak, as our mutual enemies? Well, that Bendix, for sure, he didn’t belong. And that extra cat. What was going on with that? Finally, I decided to answer a question with a question, it always drove my best friend Mary mad, maybe it would work with a demon.
“Who called you here?” I replied in response to his question.
“I said, who called you here?” I wasn’t going to change the question or elaborate, he seemed kind of dull, I didn’t want to confuse him.
“You can’t just show up, someone has to call you, right?” I said.
And he knocked me across the basement. The far wall, the one I landed against, was brick. I slid down the wall like a cartoon character. Then I smelled cigarette smoke.
“Listen, kid, I go where I want to go, and I do what I want to do, and you’re beginning to piss me off.” I heard leather shoes slapping against the cement floor then the tapping of those same leather soles right by my face. Apparently, he’d changed a lot. He wasn’t so dumb anymore. “You saw my soft side; now I’m through being Mr. Nice Guy.” And he kicked my cheekbone; he kicked me in the face. This wasn’t so funny now.
“You’re no demon,” he said. “What are you up to, anyway? I smelled a demon in this house.”
“Okay, let’s talk. I think there’s a demon here, too. Or at the least someone’s made a deal with the devil. But I don’t want to make any deals. What’s in this for you, anyway?” I asked.
“We don’t like fakes, it makes us look bad, cheapens our image.” He threw the cigarette down on the floor and stomped it out. “There’s a fake here, but there’s also the real deal.”
“Well, maybe the real deal is you,” I suggested.
“Yeah, maybe and maybe not. Help me get upstairs,” he said, his voice full of suave smiles that I couldn’t see in the dark.
“Can’t you just go up there?” I asked.
He sighed. “You must not be the demon; you don’t understand the simplest thing. No, I cannot. You have to go up there and call me. Just do it.”
“Okay. Yeah. I’ll do it.” I guess he was still quite dull. “Where’s the steps?”
He threw cinders and made a path to the basement stairs, “Hurry, don’t make me have to do that again.”
“Sure, I’m gone.” I fought my pain as I dug my nails into the brick wall to pull myself up, then I threw myself across the room and landed on the steps. I scuttled like an injured crab up the steps, shouting, “Kids! You guys up there, open the basement door I’m coming up!”
Of course, I didn’t hear their feet on the floor, rushing to rescue me, not those kids. But when I got to the top step and threw my body against the door, it fell open. As I lay on the oily linoleum floor of Aunt Tillie’s kitchen, recovering, my phone rang.
I answered it out of habit. “She left you a letter in the top drawer of her desk.” It was the one with the typical kid’s voice. The way these things worked in the movies, she was probably the demon. Trust no one, that was my motto now. But I’d look for the letter in the desk drawer anyway, what could it hurt?
I grabbed hold of one of the retro kitchen chairs and pulled myself up. I’d hang over the back and use it to get myself into the study. But first, I pulled every kitchen drawer open until I found a suitable knife for picking the locked drawer. Not knowing anything about how such things worked, I settled on both a small pointy knife and a large butcher knife in case I had to use brute force.
I put the small knife in my pocket and held the butcher knife down onto the seat of the chair. Then I scooted the chair across the linoleum, bounced over the threshold onto the polished wood of the hallway, and turned into the heavily carpeted study. There I crawled to the desk, holding both knives in my fists.
I felt the top of the desk until I found a candle in its holder with matches close by, lit it, and set it down on the chair. From my vantage point on the floor, I saw that the lock on the drawer was thick, heavy metal as opposed to the bottom of the drawer, which was made from sheets of fragile wood.
I grabbed the butcher knife and rammed it into the lower part of the drawer at all the sides repeatedly until the bottom fell out along with a single white envelope.
The envelope was, of course, addressed to me. I tore it open.
My dear Tab,
Please forgive me for any trouble that I am causing you, but I must think of my children first, and I know that you are up to this task. I remember you as full of strength and independence.
I have done a horrible thing. I succumbed to the weakness in my flesh. I hadn’t had a man since before my youngest was born. I often looked at myself in the mirror and thought about how my youth was not gone but was going to waste as a beautiful flower that dies in the vase with no one to appreciate it. I’m afraid I must have called my demon in those times when I stared into the mirror, feeling sorry for myself.
When he came to me in the night, I was startled at first, but he knew how to dispel my fears and make me feel wanted again. But enough of that, there’s so much more.
We actually married in the church. Not with a pastor. Oh no. We snuck into the church at midnight and performed our own vows. And we had a child together. Not an average child.
I blush even as I write this. That child must die, and that demon must be purged from my house. He isn’t as smart as he thinks, he let it slip one night, the secret of how to expunge him from my house forever.
You may think I’m asking you to become a criminal. Well, it’s true, I am. A criminal of the worst sort.
Go burn down that church, Tab. Three blocks from my house. You can see the spire from the sidewalk out front. It’s the only one you can see from there. Make sure Pastor Martin gets out, he’s not a bad man. But if he burns, he will not go to hell.
I have no more time.
Love, Aunt Tillie
After what I’d been through since I walked across the threshold of Aunt Tillie’s house, her letter was not outrageous. Anyway, if I did what she asked, what could it hurt?
I grabbed the candle and the matches off the chair. As I stood, I realized I’d been down too long, I need to keep moving.
If I let the pain take over, I’d stiffen and be unable to move at all. I needed to pretend it wasn’t pain but rather cold. I told myself I wasn’t feeling pain, but rather ice against my skin, a little mind trick on myself I’d often used before. Not pain, but cold. I was not in pain, not at all, I was just cold, and I needed to keep moving. I stood up straight and headed for the door.
“Stop. Where are you going?”
Now the children were talking to me. I ignored them and grabbed the doorknob with purpose this time. I twisted it, and it turned. I pulled, and the door opened. The children gasped.
On the sidewalk, I turned until I saw the spire. Then I wasted no time getting to the church; after all, it was just three blocks, and I needed to keep moving.
An old man was kneeling on one knee beneath the camellias beside the church, putting dead flowers into a woven basket. He’d also made a pile of clippings and dry branches that might be convenient for my purposes.
“Are you Pastor Martin?” I asked.
“Why, yes. How may I help you, child?” He looked at me and smiled.
“An old woman is sitting on some steps a few blocks down the street with a bag of groceries. She seems quite winded, and some boys were lurking about. She said, could I have Pastor Martin come and see to her,” I lied.
“Of course. That would Mrs. Wooten.” He stood up slowly and brushed off his knees, then he put his hands on his back and stretched. “I’d best hurry, she gets confused. Thank you, dear.” He walked briskly down the street.
The church was open. I went inside and down to the basement to reconnoiter. There was a pile of boxes, cleaning supplies, and holiday decorations. Of course, under all that was the furnace. This was going to be easy. I pushed some of the pile aside and opened the furnace door.
I could already smell a leak in the fuel line. I patted my pockets. Ah, I still had the small knife. I poked some more holes in the leaky fuel line then I got as far away as I thought my throwing arm could manage, I lit a match to a holiday decoration and tossed it, then I ran up the basement stairs and out the door.
I was amazed when the church blew up.
I prayed for forgiveness all the way back to Aunt Tillie’s house.
Even more so now, I felt a lustful pride of ownership in the house that I saw no reason to tamp down. This time I didn’t ring the bell so as not to scare the children, though a little scare might do them good.
The door wasn’t locked.
Two children stood before me. Yes, I’d seen these two before, so these were my cousins, I’d rather miss the little demon with the sweet voice, but of course, she was too good to be true. And here was the cat that had bitten me, it was the real cat, of course.
My phone rang in my pocket. Once again, I answered it automatically. Maybe it was the sweet-voiced demon cousin, calling to say goodbye.
“Yes?” I answered.
“Tab, is it you? You sound different.” Of course, it was the voice of my best friend once again.
“Mary?” I ventured.
“Yes, Tab. Where are you?” It was really Mary this time, what a relief. I gave her Aunt Tillie’s address, and she agreed to come immediately because that’s what best friends do.
“And, Mary, bring wine,” I said in parting.
“I’ll bring tons,” she promised with a laugh, then she hung up.
The old house creaked. Its cold, dry chuckle brought back my uneasiness. I had to wonder if the demon or demons were really gone or if they had just tricked me into burning down the closest church. If so, what might they do next?
I made sure the basement door was locked. Mary should be here soon.
D is for Demons is available for Kindle, in paperback, and on Audible here.
Find out more about Dona on her website.