3LBE #7
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The Occasional Demon

by C.S. Fuqua

 

Shaggy gray hair covering cloverleaf ears and frayed collar; three rust colored dogs and one liver brown, all lazing on the concrete; a square of pasteboard held by dirty, dry fingers: “Will work for food.” He directed his gaze humbly downward, as if ashamed. At his feet, a gunmetal gray box, a sturdy padlock on the lid, lay next to two paper sacks, bulging with all he owned.

Lynne, my wife, had convinced me to take a couple of weeks “paternal leave,” as she called it, then a few more weeks away from editors and deadlines to perform desperately needed home repairs before she returned to her job, our real income, leaving daytime baby care to me. Rotted eaves and siding, faded and chipped paint inside and out, two holes in the back fence — I needed help, cheap help. I would’ve hired a high school kid, but then I saw this guy beside the road.

The brown dog perked its ears but no one made a move until the old man stuffed his sign into one of the bags and stood to greet me. The man snapped his fingers, and the dogs jumped into the truck bed. He tossed his bags in back and crawled into the cab, setting the metal box gingerly between us, his hand resting protectively on top. William O'Leary grunted “Northern Ireland” to my first question. “Near Donegal Bay.” I asked him why he'd come to America. “Land of missed opportunity,” he said in a raspy brogue. “Homeless of the free, grave of the brave.”

I took the hint and limited conversation to chores. He responded to every request quickly, efficiently, better than I expected, thanks to perceptions perpetuated by media and politicians. At sundown the first day, he waited beside the truck, his dogs in back where they'd maintained a patient vigil throughout the day. He'd fed and watered them during the only two breaks he'd taken, fishing out dry food from one of the bags.

I opened my wallet. “Just enough for something to eat,” he said, “and to get my dogs a bite.”

I handed him thirty bucks; his work had been worth twice that. He pushed my hand back, his eyes, exhausted and wise beyond grief, met mine for a moment. “Take it,” I insisted.

He shook his head. “Just enough for my food and the dogs.” I shrugged, spread the bills in my hand. He took one ten, folding it neatly, hooking it into his pocket.

“Can you work a few more days?” I asked. He agreed with a nod. “Get in,” I said, planning to ferry him back to the place where I'd found him that morning, but he gave a sharp, short whistle, and the dogs hopped out of the truck.

“I’ll be here first thing,” he said. “Just be getting my box now.” He hesitated, and I remembered the metal box locked securely inside the cab. I unlocked the door; he wedged in before me, pulled the box from the seat and tucked it under his arm. He walked away quickly, the dogs forming a line behind him, tongues dangling happily. He glanced back as Lynne opened the front door and Beccah let out a cry. I looked at my watch and grimaced. Right on time, five o'clock. Beccah would cry from now until around ten when she'd abruptly stop, magically, and sleep through the night in three-hour shifts. Colic.

William arrived shortly after dawn the following day and worked until sunset. Every day, he arrived early, worked hard, left at sundown, metal box safely underarm, his dogs trailing happily behind. And he never accepted more than ten dollars for a day’s work. I felt guilty for not paying more, but glad he wouldn’t take it because it allowed me to keep him on longer.

By Thursday afternoon, we'd replaced all the rotted eaves and siding and were laying on the second coat of exterior paint when I glanced around just as William tumbled from the ladder’s top step, falling some six feet. He landed solidly on his back, knocking out the air. He rolled onto his side, groaning, his withered face pinched in pain. I rushed over as he struggled to sit up. He forced a grin, the first since I'd met him. I knelt beside him, helped him to sit.

“I’ll be fine, laddie,” he wheezed. “Fine.”

That afternoon I offered him a ride as usual, and this time he accepted, climbing into the cab, the metal box between us. I backed out of the driveway, shifted into first, and was about to disengage the clutch when I heard scratching from inside the box. I looked over at William, expectantly, but he offered no explanation. “It’s none of my business,” I began.

“That'd be right.”

“he’s an old man,” Lynne had said the day before, “no job, no home, no family. And he’s probably a little off.” William had been spreading paint on the window outside Beccah’s bedroom. Her peered in at the four-week-old child.

“Best you be protecting her.”

I turned to him, curious. “I do my best.”

“There be things,” he said, then shook his head and returned to his painting.

Things?” I asked.

He had glanced over at me, pity in his eyes for the young fool. “Best to be careful,” he said solemnly and left it at that.

I let my question about the box go, slipped my foot off the clutch, accelerated. He directed me down the Parkway, the city’s primary north/south route, to where it passes over Governors Drive. I pulled over near the intersection on the concrete shoulder under the Parkway overpass. He opened the door, slid out, grimacing with pain as he reached back for the box. Again, scratching. He paused before closing the door, nodded at the box. “You want to know,” he said. “It'd be a pet from home, and it’s hungry.”

I nodded, but didn’t ask the obvious: What kind of pet would be kept in a metal box? “I’ll pick you up here in the morning,” I said, and he closed the door. The dogs jumped out to follow. He waved to another man, a friend by the name of Baker Thomas, I'd learn later. As I watched the old man limp away, hurt more than he'd admitted, I noticed several other men, all raggedly dressed, unkempt, invisible unless you looked specifically for them, doing the best with what they had, settling in for the night — their roof, a highway overpass; their bed, a piece of dirt or concrete beside a drainage ditch.

• • •

Two weeks passed. I arrived at the overpass each morning around seven, pulling onto the shoulder north of the busy Governors and Parkway service road intersection where commuters raced the light. On this morning, William didn’t show, then I spotted Baker Thomas. Baker, a fellow Irishman, was probably the only man William considered a friend. He'd worked as a baker in Ireland, but, in America, after being fired from Krispy Kreme for drinking on the job, Baker had drunk himself finally under this bridge.

He acknowledged me with a nod as I made my way down the embankment, skirting over the low concrete barrier into the home of the homeless. Tattered jeans and snagged sweaters lay stretched on the sloping concrete sides of the drainage ditch, drying. Five or so men milled about, speaking softly among themselves. One suddenly pointed toward the highway, and I glanced around, found a policeman getting out of his cruiser.

I asked Baker what was going on, but he didn’t answer as the officer approached us. The policeman asked me why I was there, and, after explaining, I followed him and Baker into the drainage ditch and walked some forty yards north to the point where the overpass sloped sharply down. A well-worn path led from the ditch into the cavelike space under the overpass, a clearance of four feet. Three of William’s dogs scampered out and scattered, but I didn’t see the brown one anywhere. I called to the others, but they tucked tails and ran.

“In there,” Baker said, pointing into the darkness. The policeman bent low. I followed, leaving Baker behind, puffy hands shoved into pockets of pants two sizes too small. I took two steps in, stopped short, straightening by reflex, banging my head on the underside of the overpass, cobwebs tangling around my ears and face. I doubled, turning away, retching raisin bran and milk, then bile. Behind me lay the remains of William O'Leary, his belly ripped open from crotch to sternum. The metal box lay nearby, open and spattered with blood. The officer looked everything over, then dismissed the box completely.

I came out of William’s “home” lightheaded and nauseated, the box tucked underarm the same way William had carried it. Baker had already lumbered back to the drainage ditch. He glanced over his shoulder, his eyes lingering a moment on the box before he dropped into the ditch and hurried back to the intersection where his buddies waited. The officer emerged a few minutes later, resting his hands on his hips.

“Probably a fight over booze.”

“I don’t think he drank,” I said.

“he’s an Irishman, ain’t he?”

I looked away.

“We’ll talk to these people, ask the standard questions, and,” he sighed, “that’ll be that.”

I could have protested, should have, but the officer would have lectured me about the department’s more important role in society, protecting taxpayers, writing traffic tickets. One bum more or less was nothing to get excited about.

When I reached the intersection, Baker had disappeared. I returned to my truck, placed the box on the seat. With the officer finished with me, I turned the ignition key, slipped the truck into first, and started away only to stop abruptly, startled by a heavy thump in back. William’s brown dog wagged his tail and stared in through the glass. I knew Lynne would be thrilled, but I couldn’t leave it behind for the catcher. Had the other dogs come when I called, I would’ve brought them home too.

The dog immediately quelled Lynne’s potential protests by nuzzling as if on cue. That night, the dog slept inside. The next morning when I rose, it was gone, let out by Lynne, I assumed.

I dressed, started out to finish the painting, sorely aware of William’s absence. I retrieved William’s box from the truck, washed the blood off, and stored it in the utility room where it would have stayed had I never seen the rat in Beccah’s room.

• • •

Two days after William died, the day I saw the rat, I searched the house over, looking for a way it could have gotten in. I could only suppose it entered through the garage. The garage door isn’t the most secure, and the dryer exhaust vent opens to the back yard. Once in the garage, it could have slipped inside the house through the kitchen door.

As unexpectedly as it appeared, it disappeared, but I could hear it, scratching and scurrying in the attic and walls. I set up traps, but they caught nothing.

In the meantime, Beccah’s colic vanished, replaced by a nagging cough that quickly mutated into a hack that kept her awake most of the time. She grew drawn, pale and weak, but the doctor could not pinpoint the cause. She checked Beccah for viral infections, pneumonia, common cold, a hundred different bugs and ailments, but the cough and deteriorating condition eluded diagnosis.

A month passed, and Beccah’s condition finally stabilized as we pumped in antibiotics and food, both breast milk and formula, even though she fought the feedings. We brought her into our bed, placing her between us to sleep, until one night when, dead tired after countless hours of feeding and fretting, I nearly rolled back on her. A friend of mine, an artist who’s illustrated a couple of my stories, told me about a woman he worked with. She and her husband had brought their infant boy to bed with them. The father, a heavy sleeper, had rolled onto his son and smothered him. Afraid I might do the same to Beccah, we put her back in her crib and switched on the crib monitor, turning the volume to maximum, checking on her whenever she made the slightest noise.

Lynne sleeps more soundly than I, which explains why she didn’t awaken shortly after three the second night after Beccah returned to her crib. I raised up, rubbing my eyes. Imagination? The monitor hissed white noise. I lay my head down, then bolted upright as the monitor went dead. My bare feet sank into the four year-old carpet as I made my way toward the dim night light bleeding from Beccah’s room into the hall. Halfway there, the light vanished. I broke into a run, froze in Beccah’s doorway, paralyzed by fear.

It looked slowly around at me, its head, a huge cephalopod, tiny arms writhing around the mouth, eyes blazing red in the darkness, taunting. The beads of red narrowed as the cephalopod reformed into a wolf’s head. It howled laughter, rearing back, its penis erect.

Beccah! my mind screamed. For a flashing instant, I saw something in the crib that was not my daughter, a hideous creature, gaunt, gray, with the same deathly, taunting glare as the devil beside the crib. A blink, and the image was gone, and my daughter was coughing and squirming in her own private agony, her mouth opened to cry.

I lunged for the half-wolf, half-man, but it moved quicker than any human I’ve ever seen, sidestepping me, squealing delight as it began to melt into itself, reshaping, standing momentarily on its hind legs before dropping into William O'Leary’s brown dog. I dove for it, but, again, it moved with uncanny agility, darting into the hallway, changing as it fled. By the time it reached the living room hearth, it had transformed into a snake that raced over the carpet and slithered into the closet and up the phone wire, into the attic through the small hole left by the phone installer. I closed the door, my chest pounding. I switched on the living room light, the hall light, and Beccah’s room light, trembling. Insanity? I leaned over the crib rails, staring down at my daughter. Her cries had stopped, and she slept soundly now, her breaths rapid, but even. Lynne, dishevelled and with sleep-swollen eyes, appeared in the doorway, scratching her scalp. She yawned deeply. “I thought I heard her crying.”

“Just a dream,” I said. A nightmare.

“What were you laughing at?” she asked, eyes half-closed.

I recalled the creature’s obscene howl and shivered. “Just your dream.”

She nodded sleepily. “Want me to stay up?”

“No,” I said. “I’ll feed her. Can’t sleep anyway.” And she was gone.

I sat on the floor between the crib and changing table, legs cocked up, arms on my knees, head on my arms, mind clouded by uncertainty, self-doubt, fear of something I did not understand. I knew that Lynne was safe in our room. The thing I'd seen in Beccah’s room wanted her, not my wife, not me. Thoughts collided, faded, and I began to drift toward sleep. Near dawn I sensed movement in Beccah’s doorway. I opened my eyes, stunned, immobile. William O'Leary wore a good-natured grin, his face softer than I remembered.

“Ah, laddie,” the old man said. He glanced into the crib. “Kill it now, while there’s time.” He looked back at me, his face pallid, eyes pink and watery. “The box.” The image wavered, backed into the hallway.

I found my strength, charged the doorway, O'Leary, Lynne.

She staggered back, fear in her eyes as O'Leary’s image faded. I reached for Lynne, drew her close. “I'm sorry,” I whispered. “A dream. A bad dream.”

“How long have you been in here?”

“Since three, when you got up.”

She pulled back. “I’ve been up tonight?”

I smiled. “The monitor went dead, so I came to check.” I wasn’t about to mention the creature. “You came in, and I told you to go back to bed. I fed her, decided to stay.”

“I don’t even remember.” A soothing hand came to my cheek, caressing. “You okay? You’re pale.”

I drew a deep breath, smiled for her, kissed her quickly, said, “Tired, but I’ve still got a lot of work to do.” Dawn light bled in through the blinds. “And I should get busy. Maybe I should get William’s friend to help me.”

“You think that’s a good idea?” she asked. “After all that’s happened?”

Especially after all that’s happened.

I kissed her on the forehead, and, while she settled in the rocking chair to feed Beccah, I retrieved William’s metal box from the utility room, set it in the truck seat. Twenty minutes later, I arrived at the overpass and pulled off near the place where William had lived and died. I found Baker gathering his belongings into a sack. When he saw me crossing the drainage culvert to the concrete island where he made his bed, he fled in the opposite direction, leaving his belongings behind. His pace quickened. “I want no part of it,” he shouted over the roar of cars on the overpass.

I ran after him, grabbed him by the shoulder, turning him. “Part of what?”

He jerked free.

I filled my fists with his collar, yanked him close — this lightweight manhandling a heavyweight as if I had the means to back myself up. “My daughter… this morning…” I let him go, turned away. Even before I said it, it sounded preposterous.

He touched my arm, gently.

“What was in the box?” I muttered.

Baker sighed. “Come on.” He led me back to the place where he'd discovered William’s body. He bent in low, and I followed, reluctantly. The stench of death hung heavy in the stale air. He pointed to a space with no more than a foot clearance. Traffic thundered overhead. I crept closer, saw vague movement as maggots writhed in the bloated stomach of a brown dog, William’s dog. I stumbled back into the light.

“That one you took with you,” Baker said, head bowed, hands in pockets, “it weren’t no dog.”

I felt faint.

We sat in the drainage ditch, away from traffic. “Faeries,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “I don’t need jokes.”

“I make no jokes. They exist, and we pay the devil for it. There are tithes to hell and the need to revitalize bloodlines.”

“This isn’t Ireland. Just tell me what was in the damn box.”

“How’s your daughter?” he asked calmly.

I looked away.

“Sickly?”

I met his gaze, waiting.

Baker’s eyes grew dark and sad with knowledge. “They leave a changeling, one that usually dies, but if it lives, it will always be sickly.”

“There’s no changeling…”

“You wouldn’t know. It would look like the child.”

That flashing instant when I came into the doorway the night before… . No, my senses railed.

“William’s box,” he said, “his father fashioned it in the eighteen-nineties, from iron, for the phooka.”

“The what?”

“Phooka,” he replied evenly. “A trickster. Some claim he’s the devil himself. It killed William’s grandfather before William’s father was able to catch it. It’s been in that box ever since. Nothing else can hold it.”

“Then how'd it escape?” I asked, skeptical.

He rubbed his stubbled chin. “I don’t know, but I do know it killed William, just like it killed his grandfather.”

I recalled the scraping and tapping from within the box. “If you’re telling the truth, and my daughter has been stolen, why’s the phooka still there?”

Baker shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s been in that box an awful long time.” He paused, then asked, “You have a fireplace?”

I nodded, feeling cold, numb.

“Build a fire, a roaring fire,” Baker said. He slipped his hand into the faded windbreaker he wore, pulled out a crudely-made knife, the blade rusting and jagged.

I looked at the knife, then into his eyes. “You’re going to help me with this, aren’t you?”

“Ain’t my fight.” He held the knife out to me. “The blade’s iron. It was William's. It won’t kill that thing in your baby’s bed, but it’ll slow it down long enough for you to do what you have to.” He placed the knife into my palm, and my fingers closed around it.

• • •

I could smell it before Lynne said anything, a faint odor pervading the house, growing worse each time the air-conditioner cycled. I lowered the attic ladder and crawled up, the smell in the loft made unbearable by the heat. Countless piles of excrement lay on the insulation, each as if made by a different animal. Fighting nausea, I hurried down the ladder, pulling the door securely closed behind me.

“Pigeons,” I told Lynne, “getting in through a hole in the vent.” I left for the hardware store, saying I'd buy some wire to repair the vent, but instead I bought a garden hose, a combination padlock and several straw brooms, cutting off the straw, as Baker had instructed. That night, with Lynne soundly asleep, I dressed with my clothes turned inside out. As I pulled on my T-shirt, I heard a hushed giggle from Beccah’s room. My mouth went dry, throat gritty as salt.

I eased quietly down the hall — in one hand, broom straw; in the other, the iron blade knife. I lay the knife on the carpet beside the door and stepped into the doorway. A goat-headed demon towered on Beccah’s changing table next to the crib. It dropped to its knees, cackling laughter, masturbating wildly, a stream of rusty, acrid semen streaming over the rail, splattering Beccah. I scattered the straw and slammed the door shut. From within, a scream of anger and hatred. I raced to the living room, flung open the fireplace doors, lit the paper around the three wax-and-wood chip logs I'd already set up.

A shriek of damnation.

My mind raced with what I still needed to do.

Lynne emerged from our room, racing to Beccah’s door, her hand going to the knob. I grabbed her wrist as another scream sounded from within, this one different, this one from Beccah. Lynne fought against me as I backed her into the bathroom. “It isn’t Beccah!” I shouted at her.

“Are you crazy?” she cried. She kicked at me, my grip tightening.

I pulled her out of the bathroom, down the hallway, through the living room and kitchen, into the back yard where I finally released her. She bolted for the door, but I pushed her away. Beccah screamed again. I held Lynne’s wrist with one hand and grabbed the water hose sprayer with the other. Ready, I pushed Lynne aside and dragged the hose into the house. I retrieved William’s iron box from the bathroom and readied myself.

“Have you lost your mind?” Lynne rushed up to Beccah’s door. I sprayed her with the water hose as she reached for the doorknob, forcing her back. I dropped the hose and box, grabbed her by the shoulders.

“For Christ’s sake, Lynne!” Softer, “For Beccah's sake.” My voice cracked. Her horrified eyes searched mine, unable to comprehend, certain that I had gone mad. Then she heard the growl in Beccah’s room, followed by a long, heinous yowl.

“Dear God.” She began to tremble.

“When I tell you, throw the door open and get the hell out of the way.” She nodded dumbly, set herself by the door as I took position with the hose and iron box.

“Running water, broom straw, iron, crucifixes, clothes turned inside out — don’t ask me why, I don’t know, but they work.”

“Now!”

The door flung open, and I threw the box into the room. It landed with the lid slapping shut. The phooka reared its head and bellowed, its eyes gleaming. It charged, horns down, as I aimed and opened the sprayer full force, blasting it squarely in the chest. It squealed and fell back, clamoring at the window blinds. I gaped as it appeared to shrink in the spray. It shrieked again as the blinds fell, its eyes filled with terror of the large crucifix I'd taped to the middle pane. It stumbled back, and I sprayed again, spinning the bastard into the far corner, keeping myself between it and the doorway.

I edged inside, reached down for the iron box, flipped open the lid. I glanced away for only a moment, but long enough for the phooka to spring high above the spray. It landed inside the crib and immediately sank from sight.

“Beccah!” Lynne shouted. I reached the crib with her. Two Beccah's, each identical, lay inside.

I backed into the doorway, hose held ready, aimed at the crib as I picked up the knife.

“No!” Lynne shouted. Before she could act, I raised the knife, plunged it down. It sank with a sick, wet sound into the child’s chest. Tears blinded me as the other Beccah began to bubble and transform into a wriggling white larva, donned with our daughter’s face, grinning wickedly, the body sprouting moth’s wings. It laughed hideously as the wings flapped.

Falling backward, I squeezed the sprayer with all my strength. The creature tumbled to the floor, rolling with the power of the spray toward the iron box. I dropped the hose, dove, my hands wrapping around the winged creature. It writhed against my grasp, and I could feel it changing. I scrambled, crammed it into the metal box and slammed the lid shut, locking it with the combination padlock. It howled from within.

I rushed back to the crib as Lynne reached for the wounded child. I pushed her aside, lifted the baby, and fled with her to the living room, Lynne crying behind me, “Please, don’t hurt her again. Please… .” The words choked off as I flung the bleeding infant, knife and all, into the fire. I will never forget the wail, the squeals of torment, the chilling howls as the changeling rose on the flames.

Lynne collapsed to her knees, staring into the fire, speechless, tears streaming from her eyes. I knelt beside her. Finally, she looked over at me, and I took her into my arms, her face against my chest. “Beccah?” she croaked. I held her tighter.

By dawn, I was resting with my back against the couch with Lynne before the fire, staring unblinkingly into the flickering light.

A muffled cry, hungry, alone.

We raced to the door, pulled it open. Beccah lay on the porch, wrapped in the same receiving blanket we'd brought her home in.

I sealed off Beccah’s room as she and Lynne settled in our bed, Beccah suckling at Lynne’s breast. I gathered a handful of straw that lay scattered in the hallway and stroked it over Beccah’s back — no reaction. The weight of dread and defeat lifted as I lay down and watched my family slowly, peacefully, slip into sleep. I drifted off sometime later and slept soundly into the afternoon.

I returned to the Parkway overpass at Governors early the following morning, the iron box and its prisoner in hand, but Baker wasn’t there. “Don’t spect him back,” one of the others said. “It ain’t like we live in the Ritz here.”

We’ve decided to sell our house, though we have no reason to fear the occasional demon here any more than someplace else. I'm not sure why they, whoever they are, returned Beccah (Did they expect a trade?), but at least she’s home. She still has bouts with colic, but we do not mind that at all. In every other respect, she’s healthy. As for the phooka, I suppose I could toss its box into the river, but somehow, I'm sure, the bastard would escape. For now, I keep it in the utility room, locked away, hidden in a corner, but never out of mind. When I need tools or when I shed the lawn mower, the phooka, hungry for freedom, scratches steadily, but never desperately. Sometimes, I drop table scraps into the box through a small hatch, but even if I never fed it, I'm sure the phooka would survive. You cannot destroy a devil.

In late night, after the neighborhood has settled and sirens sometimes whine in the distance, if I listen closely, I can hear the phooka’s resolute breathing. Its eyes glow like drops of blood in my mind as spindly fingers toy with its ragged genitalia. Then the eyes narrow. The phooka grins with eternal patience.

 

 

C.S. Fuqua’s books include Notes To My Becca, Divorced Dads, Music Fell on Alabama, and the audio novel series Deadlines from Books in Motion. His first two children’s books, illustrated by Elizabeth Allison, will soon be released by Nitelinks.com. His work has appeared widely in publications such as Christian Science Monitor, Chiron Review, Oasis, Cemetery Dance, Bogg, Year's Best Horror Stories XIX, XX and XXI, Amelia, Slipstream, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, The Writer and Honolulu Magazine. Visit his web site at www.knology.net/~csfuqua.


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ISSUE #7

October 2000

FICTION

ART