The clouds came and the shadows gathered as thin sheets of drizzle fell across the old graveyard. The expansion of plots lay just beyond the backdoor of the First Baptist Church of Watkinsville Georgia. Most of the plots were modest affairs; square brass plates with dates and a final saying flanked by flags denoting those who’d served their country with honor.
Jeffery Walker stood among the collection of plots, a fresh six foot hole lying open before him. His head was down and the collar of his black overcoat was pulled up and snug around the back of his neck. He watched as his father’s casket slowly sank beneath the earth. A Hispanic grounds keeper was at the crank, his jeans and shirt soaked through with rainwater. Another man stood watch, making sure the seemingly fragile contraption held steady and true. The priest was gone, as was the meager crowd of six that had shown up to bid Jeff Walker Sr. adieu. They’d mostly been ladies from the old man’s high school days that had nothing better to do than to sit around and stalk the obituaries in their night robes. Any excuse to dust off the makeup case and pull the old black dress out of its dry cleaning bag.
“Your father was a good man. Always made all the girls laugh; charmer he was.” Ms. Thompson had said. She’d given Jeffery’s arm a feeble touch before shuffling away with her black umbrella spread out above her head like a cave bat attached to a balloon string; poor dear had Parkinson’s.
“No better medicine than witnessing the decline of your fellow man.” Jeffery Sr. used to say as he was flipping the pages of the local paper. He’d said a lot of things before the cancer. Then, as the months passed, the wells of wisdom slowly dried up and flaked away along with the rest of him. No one came to visit while he was on his sick bed. There were few phone calls. Some expressed sympathy. Most were looking for gossip to pass around the poker nights and book club circles. Jeffery Sr. was a man of few friends and many acquaintances. He was a high school English teacher that hated his job because it represented one thing to him; failure. Failure to pen that great American novel. Failure to break out into the world of publishing and claim the riches that were rightfully his. Each student that came through his classroom felt a bit of that sting in their homework assignments and the rigidity with which they were graded. Those that escaped his clutches with a B were local heroes; the few that came out with an A were legends.
“Babe, perhaps we should go.” Carol held the umbrella with one hand and lightly tugged Jeffery’s sleeve with the other.
“Yeah, yeah, I just, I want to see it go down.” He wanted to make sure it was true. That it was done and over. Part of him expected the lid to come flying back on the coffin and for the old man to spring up with wild eyes and petrified hands extended for his throat.
“Gotcha, ya little bastard!”
Too many movies Jeffery, way too many.
He shook his head. “Alright, let’s get out of here.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come stay the night?” Carol asked with a slight pout as she leaned through the driver side window of the clunky Excusion, her umbrella still propped overhead. The rain was coming down harder now, pattering against the metal roof like tiny fingertips.
“I just need to rest tonight.”
“Okay, well I’ll be by in the morning to help settle everything. I don’t want you to be alone in this, you need people, whether you like it or not.”
“Always looking out for me. Thanks love.”
She kissed him on the mouth and turned away.
His father’s house was a modest piece of property on a few acres of field and wood line. It wasn’t worth selling, not right now, but once the markets bounced back in a few years it would be a nice nest egg. He’d trash and sell off the old geezers antiquated possessions; the tube fed television, the threadbare sofa, his ridiculous Hummel collection, and those goddamned tin statues, just for starters. He’d bed down here for a few years. The mortgage was paid off. The only real bills were property taxes and the monthly utilities. The life insurance check would cover that, easy-peesy.
Jeffery hung his coat by the front door. “I’m home you cantankerous sonofabitch!” He waited, a hand cupped over one ear. A bemused smile stretched the corners of his mouth as the echo of his voice ping ponged against the walls and ceilings. “Nothing? No wise ass crack about my pathetic job? No long ridiculous explanation about the latest twist in your sad little novel? Oh wait, you can’t say shit, you’re dead!” If Jeffery could have clicked his heels he would have. He felt the urge but lacked the ability. Instead he twirled from the stoop in the foyer, through the living room, and into the kitchen.
He went to the fridge. It was mostly bare save for a carton of eggs, a gallon of milk that was hanging on by a day or two, and a few old packages of deli meat. The old man hadn’t eaten anything outside of pale tube injected goop for the last two months.
Jeffery stooped over, opened the bottom drawer, pushed aside a sack of potatoes, and removed the half empty vile of RCA, better known as Ricin. He held it up to the light between his thumb and forefinger, shaking the powder back and forth with a satisfied grin. It was overkill perhaps, it only took about 1.7mg to kill an adult according to Google. It probably took a lot less to kill a geriatric wracked by cancer. His father could barely open his eyes for Christ sake. Jeffery didn’t take any chances though. He shot a needle of it straight through the feeding tube while the old man was wheezing away in la-la land. He’d seized a little, grunted, and shot phlegm across the room, but there wasn’t much fight left to give. In one final act of revenge the old bastard shit the bed. Jeffery had fled the room, his shirt pulled up over his nose, cursing the old man’s name even as he removed the phone from its receiver to call the paramedics. There was no autopsy. He was an old man. He had a terminal illness. Done and done.
He placed the vile back in the bottom drawer. Tomorrow morning he’d dump it off inside some random trash bin on the way to the lawyers office and the circle would be closed for good.
The office had always been a place of escape for the old man. It’s where he’d dreamed and slaved. Page after page of dead-end manuscript sat on dusty shelves and tucked away in drawers beneath old yellow dime store paperbacks; the classics as he’d insisted on calling them. “All this new-fangled shit is just that, shit.” He’d crow while clutching a glimmering fountain pen with a dagger point, his hand moving in graceful arcs across a sheet of ivory cotton paper. He refused to use a word processor of any sort. “All that technological nonsense is for pussies like you that know nothing of the craft.” The old man resented Jeffery Jr. He resented his job at the newspaper. Resented that he was being paid for his words. It was a resentment that had grown more vehement over time. His son, the half-wit, the accidental writer, that knew nothing of the craft. “You won the lottery with that goddamn job, and all you do is watch television and scratch your ass. Do you read? Do you hone your skills? No, you go shuffle into that piss ant building, half asleep, garble together some bullshit on local agriculture, and your know-nothing editor keeps churning it out. Have you no shame?” It’d been the start of one of his father’s more epic rants. They all ran together after awhile.
Jeffery opened the center drawer of the old writing desk. The fountain pen sat over turned next to the dried up well. Both were stained tar black. His father hadn’t scribbled a letter since his diagnosis a year ago. The pen had been a curse on the old man’s life. The more he scribbled the more apparent his failures. The thicker the layers of bitterness became. Jeffery removed the pen and bounced it between his palms. There was a weight to it that transcended the physical. A darkness. It’d been an instrument of defeat, an instrument of separation, a broken mirror reflecting shattered expectation. He’d sell the cursed thing to someone that collected such knick-knacks.
He dropped the pen back in the drawer next to the empty well and shut it away. Out with the old, in with the new, he thought to himself as he shut the office door.
Sleep came on him like a familiar friend. In those final moments, before his eyes closed for the night, he envisioned cleaning out his father’s office. He’d sell the old desk off, trash the books, and the half finished manuscripts. He’d put in a pool table and a flat screen television. He’d have the guys from the office over once a week. They’d shoot the shit and tip long necked imports while ESPN ticked away on mute. The future was bright. So bright. Soon he’d need shades. He hadn’t been this happy in…well…forever. Soon he’d be the man he always wanted to be instead of the man everyone else saw. No more 9-5. No more clunky old SUV. He’d have his own house. His own money in the bank. He’d buy Carol the biggest rock Eddy’s had in the display case. He’d propose right in the middle of old downtown where they first met. Happily ever after; that’s where he was headed.
The first bump stirred him. The second bump just about shocked him right out of his skivvies. He went upright, rigid, his ass and legs leaving the bed for a brief moment. He listened.
There it went again! It sounded like a wooden crate being picked up and dropped to the linoleum.
He anchored his feet over the side of the bed. His breath catching in his throat and escaping in little spurts through his flared nostrils.
Buhmbow! Buhmbow! Buhmbow!
He clasped his hands together to stop the shaking and stood, walking to the wall, and flipping the light switch.
Nothing. Not a flicker. Not a crackle. He tried again and again getting the same feedback. His hand rattled against the doorknob. He swallowed hard and slinked out into the hall. His knees were cocked and rattling together like a wind-up toy
It was coming from his father’s office. The door was closed.
It’d been open when he’d gone to sleep though…right? Christ, he couldn’t remember, especially not now.
A red glow seeped from beneath the door, sliding out in a small circle across the short hair carpet. He froze, his knees threatened to dump him back onto his ass. He wanted to turn and run back and dive beneath his covers. But, there was something cold and insistent at his back. He felt it there. Slithering. Threatening. Somehow he knew that if he turned back things would be worse. Much worse. Better to face the fear. To see what lay beyond the cusp.
He reached for his father’s office door. He felt that cold feeling at his back slink forward and wrap itself around his wrist, pulling his palm to the handle. He was dizzy. Any moment now he’d pass out from the lack of oxygen recycling in his lungs. He turned the knob and pushed the door back. The glow shrank away to the far corner of the room where a figure stood hunched over at the desk pulling drawers out and popping them home again.
Jeffery steadied himself against the fear he felt running laps around his chest. “Who the hell are you? I’m calling the police unless you’ve got yourself one hell of a story to tell.”
For a moment the figure froze, its outline somehow darker than the opaque atmosphere surrounding it. A red pool of light circled the feet yet did nothing to illuminate the rest of the body. The figures head turned. Slowly. Deliberately. All the way around until it was sitting backwards on its shoulders. Ruby red eyes standing out against sunken socket. Shallow cheeks. Skin pulled tight over bone and gristle.
“Coooooooome sit.” Jeffery Sr. spoke in a vaporous whisper, bearing a set of jagged silver teeth that glittered like a bear trap beneath a winter moon.
No way, no fucking way! Can’t be. A demon playing dress up. Some wicked prank! That’s all. Jeffery fell back, his arms paddling for the door. Something cold stopped him. It wrapped around the back of his neck and pushed him forward. He stumbled and stopped.
The demon dressed up like his father was smiling. It stepped away from the desk, pulling out the chair, its head still sitting backwards on its shoulders. “Cooooooome, sit, sit, SIT!” The demon clacked its teeth as its eyes flared like a fireplace that’d just been stocked with a fresh cut of pine.
Jeffery was rushed forward and slammed into the chair. He was close enough now to smell the evil looming above him; sulfur, fried flesh, molded earth.
“Wriiiiite!” Jeffery struggled against the invisible embrace without success.
A paper appeared before him, flanked by his father’s ink-well, now stocked with fresh black ink, and the fountain pen with the dagger tip dripping wet, beckoning him. “Write about what?”
“Write about-” The frigid embrace wrapped itself across his hands, lifting them and forcing him to grasp the pen. Against his will he began to swirl thick black lines across the face of the blank page.
“Gooood, wriiiite, gooood.” The demon knelt beside him.
The disfigured face, foreign yet familiar, was inches from his own. A black tongue circled across crimson stained lips, the head of his nightmare turned this way and that, observing him, curious and taunting. Two pallid hands adorned with bloody splotches wrought by peeling flesh appeared on the wings of shadow next to his own, swirling back and forth, leading the writing exercise in the same way a conductor might lead an orchestra.
Slowly the words began to form.
Upon this night
If I do so dare
To call upon a maiden fare
To myself I cannot keep
This shadow I’ve so buried deep
And so it is with great regret
Upon this maiden I do set
A twisted shape without a name
This maiden’s soul I shall claim
Jeffery Walker, Jr.
Jeffery’s arms collapsed, or rather they were released. The pen fell from his fingers as he frantically read over what he’d written. He shook his head. “What is this? This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Yessss. Goood.” The demon hissed in his ear.
Jeffery could not meet the demonic gaze.
Mercifully, there was a knock at the front door and the chiming of the bell.
Jeffery stood. He wanted to cry out for help. Temporary relief flooded through every fiber of his soul
The demon flew in closer, practically setting its chin on his shoulder. “Ansssswer!”
Jeffery turned and felt the cold wrap itself around the back of his neck once more like a scarf. He plodded out into the hallway.
Another knock. Another ring.
Then he heard her voice.
“Jeffery, answer the door.”
Carol run! He wanted to shout. The words, they were there, yet they remained frozen in his throat. He couldn’t produce them. His lips wouldn’t work. They remained curled back against his teeth. Desperate. He pushed back against the invisible force. Flailing his arms. Stilling his feet. Yet, he was pushed ever onward. The frigid coil unwavering in its command.
Carol, please, carol, run now, run!
He was at the door. His hands were lifted once more beyond his control and pushed through the blackness towards the golden handle. His fingers were tightened and turned. He stood there, a puppet at the mercy of an unseen master.
The door swam towards him on its hinges. There she stood on the small square stoop. Her down feather jacket. Her hair tied up in a loose pony tail. Her crystal blue eyes betraying a potent cocktail of relief and concern.
“Jesus Jeff,” She stepped past him into the blackness. “I got your message. You scared the hell out of me, what’s going on?”
It wasn’t me…
It wasn’t me!
The door slammed shut. The blackness threw itself across them, interrupted only by the meager stream of fluorescent street lamps sitting at the end of the driveway.
“Jeffery, turn a light on for god sake.”
He turned on his heels. Rigid as a board. The icy coil tightening evermore.
“Jeffery, hello?” She stepped back. There was something there. Something different. Something in the darkness reaching for her. “Jeffery you’re scaring me.”
He was thrown forward, pushing her to the ground, and landing on top of her. He pinned her body to the carpet with his own. The silver pen was once more in his hands. It was still wet, still dripping with ink. She was screaming now and bucking as he set his knees on either side of her. The demon, it was there beside them as well. Crouched. Clapping its wicked hands together with glee. It squealed as Carol bucked and clawed for Jeffery’s face, grazing him on the last few swipes.
“Wriiiite!” The demonic voice whispered. “Wriiiite!” Thin lines of blood were now dripping down the demons face.
Jeffery tried to resist as his arms rose up above his head. The cold clutch tightened over the top of his hands, securing them around the body of the pen. He hovered above carol for a few moments. Her form wriggling beneath him. Weakening. Her delicate features distorted by panic. Her neck pulsating with the effort of trying to break free.
A futile exercise.
Carol. My sweet Carol. I love you.
He came down. Sending the metal tip of the ink pen plunging into her neck. Straight through her carotid. She gasped and choked. Blood sprayed out and up. Red mixed with a hint of black rained across Jeffery’s face. Again and again he came down and up until he was panting and hunched over from the effort.
“Yessss,” The demon cheered. “Wriiiite!”
Jeffery rolled sideways into the pool of blood forming beneath Carol’s still form. He couldn’t look at her. Couldn’t see her like that. Couldn’t see the mess he’d made. She was a perfect beauty. His Carol.
Carol, I love you. I’m so sorry. The words wouldn’t come. But it was the thought, right? He’d always believed that. Still did. He hadn’t wanted to hurt her. He’d loved her. More than anything. It’d been the demon. The demon dressed up like the old man. He’d taken him into his shadowy arms and corrupted him.
Tears streamed from Jeffery’s eyes as Carol’s blood soaked the back of his shirt, warming him, the cold coil that had prodded him this far was no longer there. His hands rose once more. and he plunged down for the final time. There was no pain, just a pop and a feeling of release like someone had opened a valve, and he was slowly deflating. As he began to drift away his head lolled and his eyes fell to where the demon had last knelt, cheering him on. There was nothing now. Just the outline of his Carol.
He smiled and closed his eyes. “Wriiiiite,” He mumbled as the pen rolled from his grasp.