By Rachel Muenz
Uneven rows of umbrellas bobbed towards her. Their metal frames frightened her to the edge of the sidewalk and then back into the alley against the cold dumpster. The thin spokes reminded her too much of wing bones. Her fingers dug at the air around her knees. She looked down and jumped, shocked to find nothing there.
Cassie flung herself back into the noise of the street, into the path of a grey-haired man under a white umbrella. A wool blanket clung to her shoulders and dragged in the dirt and cigarette butts on the cement. The man pressed a cellphone to his ear.
“Excuse me?” she called.
He stepped around her and kept walking.
She spun towards the other pedestrians and half-tripped towards a father and son holding their coats above their heads. A parent would understand.
“Excuse me?” The two stopped and stared. The boy’s mouth opened enough to show a missing tooth. The father’s nose wrinkled and he pulled the boy a bit behind him. “Have you seen my daughter?”
“What does she look like?” His eyes flicked back and forth.
Her smile lifted her cheekbones. “She’s a skinny little thing, four years old, about this high.” The side of her hand hovered around the middle of her thigh.
“No, I’m sorry.” He pushed his damp hair out of his eyes and started inching away. The rain pricked her face.
“She has blond hair like mine, she loves, she loves – ” The woman wrapped her hands in the blanket and swung them back and forth. Her pupils were small even in the dim light that filtered through the clouds.
He squinted at her head. The dirty cords of her hair looked closer to brown than blond. His son gazed into the crowd, leaning from side to side and standing on his toes.
“I’m sorry,” the father repeated.
He put his coat back over his head and pulled his son down the street. The pale circle of the boy’s face disappeared in the dark swing of legs and coats and briefcases. Skyscrapers rippled in the shiny black side of an SUV, a silver wave erupted from beneath its tires and soaked the hem of her blanket. She did not notice. A drop of rain drew a white line down her temple.
Dropping her head, Cassie blundered back to the alley, the trickle of people veering out of her path. Her fingers tapped the rough wall and she settled herself next to the dumpster and a pile of wet garbage bags. The smell of fish wrapped itself around her face. A hole gaped in the bricks before her, dark enough to make her shiver.
She wanted to move but was too afraid to. There had to be one in there but without Sadie she couldn’t tell. She bit blood out of her lip and drummed the back of her skull against the wall, not hard, just enough to keep their voices out.
Holes. That’s how they tried to catch the first one. She had heard it scratching in the walls and muttering about killing them all so Cassie took her husband’s sledgehammer and smashed through the drywall. Sadie thought it was the most fun she’d ever had. She hated the yellow living room anyway and she wanted to catch the demon so she could show her friends at daycare. Her mother couldn’t see him but she saw his scaled feet and the blade of his tail flick out of sight each time Cassie punched another hole in the wall, puffs of plaster hanging in the air and making them cough.
“There he is! Sadie jumped up and down and pointed. “No! To the left.”
They were a perfect team. Only Cassie could hear its growls and curses and only Sadie could see him. She strained to see the demon until her eyes hurt.
Finally, he tumbled out of the fireplace, shaking soot from his long grey coat. He looked just like a man except for the horns curling from his sandy hair and the claws poking from his sleeves. And the tail that waved in the dust. He bared his yellow fangs and stalked towards them. Sadie screamed through a smile and Cassie yelled and swung the hammer.
And her husband walked in the door.
Zack almost stumped past them into the kitchen, wiping dirt off his face and undoing his tool belt. He looked up and froze, his cheeks trembling and going red. The tool belt crashed to the floor and he lunged for his wife’s arm.
Cassie thought the demon had possessed him since it seemed to have vanished. She tried to hit him with the hammer but missed. Jesus. He caught the handle and eased it from her hands, bewildered.
Zack tried to help but Cassie wouldn’t see the doctor and Sadie wouldn’t leave her mother because she had to protect her from the devils. He woke up with dried leaves and a crucifix on his pudgy stomach. They fell off as he sat up and he picked a leaf off the mattress and sniffed it. Spicy. Cassie’s snores vibrated through the wall. She’d snuck off to the couch again.
He needed to get Sadie out of there but Zack didn’t know anything about lawyers and judges except they always gave kids to the mother and he couldn’t tell if Cassie was really crazy or just playing at it. He guessed it was just a female thing and figured it would pass. She’d avoided him before and always came around in the end.
If she didn’t want to see the doctor that had to mean she was all right.
She was not. A flash of her hands one night and a candle was in his face. He blinked and scratched away the hot wax with a high-pitched curse.
“Remove yourself from this house Satan.” Cassie swung the candle at him again and he fell back into the dim rectangle of the front door, into the hazy fire of streetlights.
In a grumble from his truck and a blue cloud of exhaust, he left. He didn’t even think about coming back.
The demons kept whispering. Where do you think you’re going? Don’t go that way, go under your bed into the good shadow, come to us where you belong. Casssie cried out and ripped her face with her fingernails and Sadie pulled her hands down and showed her where the demons were hopping across the couch. Cassie stuffed rosemary and sage under the cushions, all those good herbs that keep demons away. She read the Bible out loud and lit beeswax candles because surely something that sweet would get rid of something so foul.
“It worked Mommy,” Sadie said. “They’re gone now.”
She only felt safe with her daughter and kept her close. The neighbours chattered about her in The Hinge and on their lawns and passing each other on the street. They wondered if they should do something but didn’t want to interfere.
Ten-year-old Hayden saw her fighting air in the park one morning, Sadie dancing around her feet.
“His head is there Mommy, you got him.”
At first he thought they were playing pretend but then Cassie howled, a sound that shivered his spine and made his body go cold. He turned his skateboard around and pushed hard on the sidewalk, hurtling himself down the hill.
Unseen by Cassie, the seventh demon brushed Sadie’s hair with his wings as he crashed into the sandbox in a cloud of dust. He looked something like a tarry bat that Sadie had seen on a scary TV show. One of his horns had snapped off and his eye was swollen shut where Cassie had punched him. The creature shrieked but Sadie pointed at his yellow eye and Cassie threw a bottle of water over top of him. His wings flexed at odd angles and his skin hissed. He melted into the shadows and left behind only the smell of dog shit.
Sometimes she was strong enough to tune them out. The voices sounded too ridiculous to be real and she could almost be normal. She picked up the phone but didn’t know which number to call. The receiver clicked. Zack was no real loss. He was a bit of an idiot anyway.
Cassie vacuumed up the sage leaves and put posters over the holes in the walls. She took Sadie to daycare and went back to work at The Hinge where they didn’t care so much that she was crazy as long as she could serve drinks. When the men got drunk enough they would ask her about the demons and shake the tables, laughing.
“Oh my God the demons are here,” Ranger screamed, slopping beer over his hand.
She gave them the finger and carried an empty tray to the back where Garrett and Sally muttered about her in the kitchen, letting the burgers burn.
“She totally has schizophrenia,” Sally said, shaking the fries.
“Shouldn’t she see a doctor for that?” Garret asked. His dull voice seemed to be coming from the floor.
“I’m not going to tell her to go,” her voice burst through the sizzle of the grill.
“Shit, Garrett, you’re supposed to be watching the damn burgers.” Above the hiss of the deep-fryer, a spatula scraped.
“They aren’t so bad,” he slurred. “You can scrape that right off.” More scratching.
“They’re burned to fucking coals, you tool.”
Cassie didn’t care. They were just a couple of stoner teenagers. She knew the demons were real. Sadie could see them.
Their house was infested with demons so Cassie went to church. Saints she couldn’t remember were glowing gold in the windows, their bodies split into fragments of colour. The sun ran along the tops of the pews. Lines of heat. Dust danced lazy and slow in every shaft.
One of the volunteers told her Father Deerborn was doing confessions so she slipped into the empty booth. She could ask him there. But when he leaned towards the grille she heard a growl from the other side. Her back collided with the wall. A roar engulfed her in the narrow dark. Cassie kicked open the door and ran, leaving Father Deerborn in the doorway of the other compartment, his robes flapping and his teeth sticking out as they always did when he frowned. The dust spun in a wild storm and the door slammed.
Shooting through a stop sign in her truck, she almost killed Mrs. Kettle. Cassie kept her foot flat on the gas until she got to the daycare. Only Sadie could save her.
She swallowed her screams and kept her jaw tight as she stepped between the multicoloured tables and shrieking children. Marina strode towards her from the easels at the back of the room but Cassie picked up Sadie and left without saying hello. The eyes of the children shook up at her, wide and full of water. Demons. She pressed Sadie to her chest and backed out of the room.
“Where are they Sadie?”
The car groaned down Highway Six. Trees along the road were a long green smear. Wind sucked at the half-open windows. Sadie chewed on her ponytail.
“They’re inside the car.” Sadie lifted her feet and pointed at the floor. “I saw fire there.”
The car swerved with a scrape of gravel. Stones ticked on the underbelly. Cassie jerked it back onto the road, blowing through the dust. She looked at the floor and then the road. A sign from God. Five-Mile-River, next right.
Their hair was orange from the setting sun and that’s how he saw them in between the swaying shadows. He’d just been about to pull his rig over and have a nap when he had seen them up ahead, weaving along the road’s jagged edge. The truck shuddered to a halt and the woman looked up. Dirt speckled her neck and coated the shirt of the little girl flopped across her back. Sadie turned her head and opened her eyes, blue.
“Are you going to the next town?” The woman’s voice was loud for someone who looked so worn out.
“I sure am,” he said. He leaned over to open the truck door.
She wouldn’t tell him where she was from and rocked in her seat. There’d been an accident involving brakes, she said. Her car had gone into Five-Mile and she needed to get to the next town so she could call the police. Even though she kept shifting around, her movements were smooth and slow and her voice was steady. If his car had just gone into a river he’d be going crazy. He picked at his teeth with his tongue and kept his eyes on the road.
When it was cold and dark, he set her down in front of a hardware store on the main street. Trucks as big as his weren’t allowed to drive down there so he wanted to get going before the cops came along and gave him a ticket.
“You’ll be OK?”
She nodded and swayed down the sidewalk, hitching up her daughter and the backpack she carried. He was already on the next freeway when his head jerked back, eyes burned by some guy who wouldn’t turn his damn brights off. She had walked north. But the police station was south. The car whooshed past, leaving the night deeper than ever. It wasn’t any of his business which way she went. He drove on.
Sadie woke up in strange sheets, staring at a big brown stain on the ceiling. Her mother hugged a damp pillow beside her. Outside, the cars throbbed on the main street and a bicycle bell pinged and someone shouted a very bad word. A big rectangle of light sat on the grubby carpet. Cassie rolled over and snorted. Sadie hoped she wouldn’t hear demons today. She was getting tired of thinking up new ones.
After the hotel owner kicked them out for smashing a demon-filled TV, they moved into a greasy apartment above the Chinese restaurant down the street. The owner, who was actually German, always smiled at the sight of them and gave Cassie a job as a dishwasher. His wife watched Sadie in the apartment across from theirs when she was at work.
Cassie put herbs under the furniture the Wundts gave her and flung strips of paper with Bible verses into every shadow. Holy confetti flashed from her fingertips and Sadie spun beneath them. There was a courtyard full of garbage bins in the back. It seemed to be full of the sour rot of Chinese food but Cassie knew it was the smell of the demons.
They were getting close again.
It was only a matter of time.
The sun stabbed through the gap in the curtains and Sadie did not feel well. She hadn’t slept much because Cassie had flopped back and forth and muttered all night. Sadie pushed her mother’s hand away when she tried to pull her out of bed.
“C’mon, sweetie, get up.”
Cassie felt queasy at the yellow light in her daughter’s eyes. She shook her head and prodded Sadie off the mattress.
At the kitchen table, Sadie stuffed her spoon in her mouth and chewed with it open wide, a yellowish mash of cornflakes spread on her teeth and tongue.
Cassie counted the grey tiles between the counter and the bottoms of the cupboards. One, two, three, four…. When she finished, she counted the red-orange splatter of spaghetti sauce from the night before. She would have to clean that up after work.
The voices whispered but she couldn’t quite hear what they were saying, as long as she kept counting. But if they broke through, Sadie would save her. She smiled at her daughter. Sadie wrinkled her noise and burped. Only then did she grin. It wasn’t even a real smile and Cassie’s mouth fell into a line.
Sadie dragged her feet in the hall. Mrs. Wundt’s place smelled like candy but she didn’t want to be there. She pinched her mother’s leg between her skinny arms. Cassie prised her off and descended the staircase through fried chicken and the sweet spice of Mr. Wundt’s “special Chinese sauce.”
Mrs. Wundt shuffled forwards, her hands curled with arthritis.
“You vant cookie?” Sadie shook her head. “I just bake this morning.”
The little girl ran down the hallway and hid in the bathroom.
Mr. Wundt yelled hello through the steam and Cassie focused as hard as she could on moving her muscles and stretching her lips to show her teeth. A few words could be discerned. Nobody wants you. Just jump in the oven and leave. She pivoted away from the stainless steel ovens, which were covered with brown drips and black crust, and carried a stack of plates to the sink. The water hushed out of the tap.
The bathroom doorknob rattled.
“Sadie-lein, vat is wrong?” A drip ticked into the half-shadowed tub. Sadie listened.
A plate cracked in her raw hand. She pulled it from the scalding water. The work of a demon. Five thin zigzags branched from the centre and Sadie said the demons all had five claws so there had to be one nearby. Cassie’s arm wavered above the sink. Something roared in the hot corner. Cassie, you know which way to go. Leave your daughter to us.
Tim cut through the heat with the edge of a platter of chicken balls. The doors thudded on his palm and swung, black, grey, black, grey. One, two, three, four. She stuck her fingers back into the water and groped for the dishcloth.
Sadie had fallen asleep on the fuzzy purple rug in front of the toilet. Mrs. Wundt thanked Alex for picking the lock and lifted the child into the living room in her twisted arms.
Rapid knocks rattled the door far too early. Cassie fidgeted in the doorway in her damp apron. A grey stain spread over her chest.
“I’ve just had an emergency,” she said. Before Mrs. Wundt could get control of her stammers, Cassie had ferried Sadie away.
Angry mutters bubbled from the child’s lips. The door slammed behind them.
“Where is it Sadie?”
“Where’s what?” she groaned.
“The demon,” Cassie screamed, tearing off her apron and flapping it about her. “I can hear it all around.”
Sadie glared up at her. Those growls! They were coming from her daughter. They’d taken her soul as promised.
She could see it in the gold sparks in her eyes, the first time she’d ever seen one. Cassie had to get it out. Her hands dove and gripped the creature’s neck. It shrieked and spasmed on the floor, pulling the rug into big furrows. She dug her thumbs into the eyes, to dig the evil light out. Her hands pressed and pressed, its hot breath seared her neck. The demon came screaming out of her daughter and died in the light.
Sadie was safe now. Her eyes were still and clear.
But there were more. They banged into the room throwing a blade of shadow over her shoulders. Steel-strong hands tore her from Sadie’s neck.
“Don’t take her from me,” Cassie screamed. Her toe connected with a shin and a yelp echoed in her ear.
“Alex, call the police, call an ambulance,” Mr. Wundt panted.
They put her in a fortress and forced pills down her throat. The voices were still there but they were easier to ignore. Her body floated on warm currents of air. Sometimes Zack and Sadie drifted through the white light and sat in front of her. A string of drool hung from her mouth and the nurse kept wiping it away. It didn’t embarrass her at all.
They released her after only five years for “rapid improvement” which was just another way of saying they didn’t have the money to keep her. Her feet scraped the streets and she slept in the shells of buildings, next to oil drums full of fire. A man made of rags took her pills and the shadows got deeper and the demons howled in her brain louder than before. She looked for Sadie.
The policeman found her while walking the beat early in the morning after the umbrellas. Stevens was supposed to be with him but had gone off sick. This area wasn’t too dangerous anyway. The sidewalks still shone with rain and a tangerine glint bounced off the walls of glass above him. His head seemed pulled down that alley.
Cassie’s grey-brown hair was matted to her wrinkled cheeks. He wondered how old she really was. Liquid dripped somewhere. Slap slap slap. The cop took off his hat and rubbed his sandy hair. He nudged her muddy sock but she didn’t move. A bag of garbage was locked in her arms. He knelt and without thinking, traced her dirty smile with his finger and wiped it on his pants, feeling abandoned.
Sparrows cheeped and fluttered on the window sills above. He raised his walkie-talkie to his mouth and called it in.