The man’s gums chomped unceasingly as he undid the apron around his waist. The apron read “World’s Worst Grandad,” and was smeared with sauce and flakes of barbeque gristle. He licked his fingers. There was something strange about his eyes, Keith thought.
“A sack of the corn, some of that deer scent, and those beef sticks,” Keith said, pointing around the store with his hook.
The man didn’t look up. Didn’t take notice of Keith’s hook. “You want the buck urine, or the doe estrus? And there’s a two for one special on the pulled pork. Second batch of the day is the best batch. Got the kinks worked out by then.” The syllables bunched up. It was a rehearsed speech.
Keith realized what was wrong with the man’s eyes. They were drawn on in pencil. Where his eyes should have been, was only soft flesh.
“The doe estrus. I’ll pass on the barbeque,” Keith said.
The man moved across the room slowly, like a long-extinct dinosaur Keith had seen on TV.
“Honey, grab him some of those beef sticks. You moved them last,” the man said.
A woman came out of a hallway near the back of the store. She resembled a rodent, small and tense. Her arms were leathery from years of laying out in the sun, her face wrinkled like a chip bag. Keith imagined them making love, the eyeless man bending awkwardly over her.
“Looks like you got a deer,” the woman said, staring out the door. It was a blinding August Saturday.
“It ain’t hunting season. You should know better,” the man said to Keith.
“Looks like it’s still alive. I can see it kicking at the sack. You’ll need to cut its throat,” the woman said.
Keith felt sick to his stomach. If they only knew what was in the sack.
“Or put a bullet in its head. The more humane thing to do.” The man threw the corn up on the counter.
“Nah. He’ll ruin the skin if he does that,” the woman said. “You don’t want that do you, hun?”
Keith turned away from her gaze. There was something there. Some kind desire that sickened him. It was lust or a cry for help.
“No, ma’am,” Keith said.
The skin was the most important part.
She offered him a knife. Just like the demons had said she would.
“Take a gun to it,” the man said. “One bullet in the brain. Put it right behind the ear.”
“There ain’t no use for all that racket,” the woman said. “Just run the blade across its neck and be done with it.”
She drew a finger across her neck, her nails glossed crimson. The gesture struck Keith as particularly violent. He wondered if she could do what he had done.
No. She’s not evil. She’s something else, he thought.
The woman smiled. Cigarette-stained teeth. What had the man done to win that smile? What could he do with it? Could he feel its warmth with his hands? He couldn’t see it. He could never see it.
“Go ahead and give me that knife, I guess,” he said.
“Which one would you like?”
“The one with deer bone handle,” he said.
“How’d you know we’ve got that?” the woman said.
She pulled it from a cabinet drawer beneath a poster describing cuts of meat.
“It’s a one of a kind,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
Atop the truck bed, he poured the deer urine over the sack. The man inside squirmed like an unborn chick beating against its shell. Keith ripped the bag open. A white foam of shock bubbled between the man’s gums. Wasps came crying out of the sack.
Keith chewed and spat the juice of the beef sticks into the man’s mouth like a mother bird. He poured the corn and the estrus inside the bag. He squatted in the heat and listened until the man stopped breathing. Smoke hissed, and a demon came screaming into the world. The first way Keith summoned a demon was the screams of a stung man, the juices of a chewed beef stick, the texture of dried corn and the smell of a doe in heat.
The woman was staring at him through the glass. The man called from somewhere in the store. She turned away. She had seen but would not tell. She was a survivor, one who scurried into the brush, who hunkered in caves, who survived where others died.
If I was that, he thought. If I could turn away and run, I would.
An arm shot from the bag. It was once the man’s arm, but now it belonged to something else. It belonged to a demon
Keith was ten when he blew his hand off. The fourth of July was over, and man at the fireworks stand had forgotten to lock the back door. After making out with as much as he could carry, he lit fire to the gasoline-soaked pile of some thirty bottle rockets, uncountable sparklers and firecrackers, an assortment of other fireworks he didn’t know the name of. The explosion scattered chunks of asphalt, set off the nearby tornado siren, and produced a flash of light that temporarily blinded Keith. After his vision had come back, he saw the flesh of his hand hanging like a bundle of flattened red balloons. He was angry. He was always angry when he was hurt.
He screamed for his mama all the way home. When he arrived at the trailer, he moved the roach-filled dishes from the sink and ran water over his hand, because that’s what he thought his mama would tell him to do. He couldn’t figure out if the water should be hot or cold, so he settled on lukewarm.
His mother’s latest boyfriend came into the kitchen, a near-empty bottle of rum in one hand, a trucker hat cupped over his genitals. Keith had seen him punch his mother. Had seen him pull her by the hair into the living room and yell at her for cheating on him. Keith had held an ice pack to his blind mother’s forehead because she did not have the strength to raise her bruised and swollen arms. She had so many boyfriends that he made up names for them. He called this one the Styx man, because he was always singing songs from the band.
Maybe it was the look on the man’s face. Maybe it was the thought of his mother’s bruises, both of her hushed eyes black. Or it was the adrenaline that surged through his blood that made him bite his bottom lip until blood ran down his chin and charge at the Styx man.
It was none of that, he realized much later. He had a black heart. He was evil.
His shoulder struck the man square in the stomach. The air went out of the Styx man and the bottle went out of his hand. The man took a step back, into a pool of Keith’s blood and lost his footing. When the man’s head hit the linoleum, the impact was as loud as a gunshot.
The sick crack of a skull. The blood of a child with a black heart. The chemicals in the cigarette that hung on the man’s lips. A gateway to another place opened.
Keith didn’t know until later, after he’d rolled the Styx man over and seen his dead eyes, after he’d drank what was left in the whiskey bottle, after he’d coiled pillowcases around his stump, after he’d staggered to his bedroom and passed out from the pain and drink, that Hell had reached out and touched him.
While he slept that night, the veneer of the world peeled back, revealed demons like roaches beneath the kitchen plates. They came to him.
Sweat kept falling into his eyes. Keith wiped his brow uselessly. He hacked again with the hatchet. The tree groaned and toppled.
“I tortured Goya into painting his walls. Van Gogh into cutting off his ear. And you wish for nothing but residence in a fantasy land?” the demon said.
“I wish you didn’t have a fucking mouth,” Keith said.
After Keith excised the knot from the tree, he poured gasoline over the knot, watched it burn, collected the black hunk of charred wood. This was the first of things he needed.
To a hospital where he disguised himself as a nurse, broke into the lab, and stole a recently excised tumor of teeth and eyes cut from the uterus of a mother of three. To a lakeside dock where he browsed a shelf of books and ripped the signed, title page from a chapbook by a Czechian poet. To a pasture where the next person was to die.
“Were there ever any girls you loved?” the demon asked.
Keith said nothing.
“Just mommy, how sweet,” the demon said. “I promise, we didn’t enjoy what we did to her.”
He’d found his mama the morning after he’d killed the Styx man. Wondering why she hadn’t opened his door, he’d crept into her bedroom. There he saw her arm hanging from the bed, weathered and gray as sun-cracked soil. When he touched her arm, her whole body crumbled.
There was a pond at the bottom of the pasture. The previous owner had carved the pasture out of an old landfill. He had sold scrap from the landfill when Keith was a boy, putting what he claimed was an unused World-War-II missile out in front of the Piggly Wiggly.
“There’s secrets buried there. A treasure trove of history,” the man had said.
Something here did mark this place for a link between worlds, Keith thought. That’s why the demon told him to come here.
A spec of a tractor crawled across distant hills, the gears crushing out a dirge. There were three lawn chairs around the shore of the pond. There were empty beer cans scattered along the soil. A man sat in one of the chairs, head craned back, clearly drunk. A child coiled in another, wrapped in a blanket despite the heat. The child’s bald head told Keith the story. Hospital visits, chemicals with long names, the dying flame of life. Keith slammed the brake of his truck.
The demon waved a hand. “It’s the father we’re after.”
Keith chewed the page he’d ripped from the book of poetry. Spat on the blade of the deer-bone handled knife. He wondered what he would do if he were a good man. Take the blade to his own throat? The demons would be waiting for him in Hell. They knew him, had tortured his dreams for two decades since that day he’d lost his hand and his mother.
“If you’re here about a cow, you’ll have to wait till we’re done fishing,” the man said.
Keith met eyes with the boy. As frail as the child’s body was, there was life in his eyes, flaming. Something shivered inside Keith. He fought it down. There was a man to kill.
“I’m looking for something,” Keith said. “A sound.”
“How do you look for a sound?” The man slurred.
An injury to the carotid artery is nearly always fatal. He pulled the man’s head back with his hook. Keith’s lip curled at the sounds the man made as the blade went through his neck.
The boy’s scream was a quiet, mouse-like thing. That was the sound Keith was looking for. He sprinkled the charred tree remains in the man’s gaping neck. Then dropped the mother’s tumor inside. The second way to summon a demon is with the screams of a sick child, the ink of a convicted poet, the tumors of an oak and a mother, the rust and garbage of a hundred years.
I am evil, Keith thought. I am scum that walks the Earth.
“Make him forget this,” Keith said. “Make the child forget this.”
The dying man jerked as something coalesced inside him.
“It will cost you,” the demon said.
“Take it all,” Keith said, wiping the blood and sweat from his face. “Please.”
The demon rose and pressed its lips against Keith’s. Its kiss tasted of flies and bile.
The humidity choked. Every step up the hill was like a step taken underwater. The spell the demon had cast had taken something from Keith.
Thirty years or forty, he thought. I’m like an old man now.
After he’d laid the boy down in the back seat of the cab, he saw the grey stubble, the folds dipping over his eyes in the truck’s rearview mirror. Is this what his father looked like now? Keith had never seen him. He wiped the blood from the knife on his jeans.
Beside him, the demon pulled at the skin on its face. Wasps leaked from the space between her eye and the skin. She was still working out the fit of the flesh. Keith rubbed and rubbed the knife across his jeans. He couldn’t get the blade dry. He couldn’t remove the blood.
“One more,” the demon said. “One more and your dream comes true.”
The second demon was coming up the hill from the pond. Wound splayed open on the neck like a flared collar. It was trying to keep the flesh together, like a woman holding a shirt that had lost a button. That demon hurt to look at. It shivered or vibrated, its body a blur.
Under the naked bulb in their trailer, Keith’s mama had told him stories of marmalade knights and strawberry princesses. The book was braille, the only braille book in the school library where she worked, the only one she could read. When he was young, he puzzled over the rows of dots, trying to make out castles of cream and clouds of caramel in the braille. He had dreamed of those places, the chocolate caves, the bubbling oceans of fizz.
That’s where the demons had met him the night that he opened the way. Tenctacled, monolithic shapes hung over the horizon like suns and moons. The demons wrapped around him. Crawled in places they weren’t supposed to be. He heard their whispers, the sound of chainsaws and broken glass; smelled them, so bitter and caustic he couldn’t breathe; felt them, pressure like a dentist’s drill behind his eyes.
We need blood.
And other things.
Bring us into the world.
And we’ll give you gifts.
He lived alone in that house for days while the Styx man grew bloated. It wasn’t until years later, taking his shirt off in the semi dark, that the drunk girl screaming, “What the fuck, what the fuck,” told him about the marks the demons had left.
They had carved him to the bone in places. The terms of the agreement in their guttural tongue. Three demons brought into the world for a single wish. For years he screamed at them, “What do you want from me?”
We want to mine your dreams.
Play with you.
Then when we’re tired of you, we’ll give you your wish.
What do you want?
There was only one thing he wanted.
It has to be something else.
There was nothing else, except a land with rivers of caramel, blueberry knights, grass like mint. A fantasy to replace the nightmare of living.
Your own dreamland?
“What else do I have but dreams?” he asked them.
“The next body belongs to a woman,” the demon said.
Car engines screamed. The scrape of metal on metal. It was the biggest demolition derby in the state. The parking lot smelled like beer and sweat, gasoline and fried chicken. Keith was sick of dreams and demons. He looked at the sleeping child in the back cab of the truck.
I can’t wish for death anymore, he thought. What would they do to the boy? Torture him? No, they’d sneak into his dreams, corrupt him like they had done Keith.
I should have left him to die, he thought.
Sweat ran down the scars on his back. The demon pointed out the next to die. She sat on metal bleachers, legs flushed red by the sun, oversized white rimmed sunglasses, flapping a fan uselessly against the suffocating evening heat. She looked like… No. He would not be reminded of his mother. He would not think of her.
Fire shot from pipes on the cab of the Colossal Dandy. The monster truck had burst from a chamber to the sound of a drunken and furious roar from the crowd. The Colossal Dandy leaped, crushed cars, did loops around the arena. Standing behind the woman, Keith shifted from foot to aching foot. His hand on the piano wire in his pocket.
Do I have the strength to finish this? He thought. Yes. Otherwise the demons wouldn’t have taken part of my life for the child.
The spectators didn’t notice the awkward gaits of the demons. The way the flesh fit poorly around their eyes and mouths. If they concealed themselves by some magic or if the people here were too caught up in the spectacle, Keith didn’t know. Perhaps he only knew they were demons because he summoned them. He wondered if there were more demons out in the world, ones he had seen, but never recognized.
Cheers went up, beer spilled, and voices stretched to their breaking point. The demons had something approaching smiles across their faces. The moment was almost here. Keith could feel it. It throbbed in the stump of his hand. The Colossal Dandy spun its wheels, bathing spectators in mud. Children ran toward the arena, hoping to be splattered. Old drunks wandered out of the way or let the mud wash over them.
The woman’s throat was like something ancient, leathery and sagging, like a coin purse dug from an old excavation. She shivered from the cold of the wire when he slung it around her neck. He would not think of his mother.
The Colossal Dandy approached the rim of the arena where the most people crowded and backed up all the way to the opposite end of the arena. The driver accelerated. Keith knew what would happen. The brake would fail. People were going to be trampled. They were packed tight. There were too many.
He turned away. But he heard the screams. The smell of diesel overwhelmed everything. The chain felt cold. He felt cold.
Just pull the wire tight, let it dig into the flesh, he thought. But his hands wouldn’t comply. There was a boy sleeping in his truck. What would happen to the boy? What would the demons do when the three of their kind were in the world? He didn’t know. They had told him nothing.
He saw the woman’s cane beside her, the purse with the book half out. The raised paper of a book of braille. She was blind. His heart caught in his throat. The third way to summon a demon is with the broken accelerator of a monster truck, the smell of fried chicken, beer, and sweat, the death of a woman that reminds the demonologist of his mother.
“Ralph, is that you?” the blind woman said.
Some people in the stands were running. Others kept eating, cheering. Her hand touched the wire. She had mistaken him for someone else.
“Yes,” he said.
He did not pull the wire tight. Instead he tied it around her neck. His hand fell to her shoulder.
“A necklace? For me? Can you believe they paid all these people to put on such a show?” She said.
He did not look up. He tried to focus on her voice over the screams. His pact with the demons was broken. There was no Candy Kingdom waiting for him.
“Am I evil, mama?” He said.
The demons’ gazes turned toward him. He could feel their hate. He waited for them to rip him apart, to come bouncing out of their skin and rip out his tongue like they had in his dreams. But that didn’t happen. Instead, they vanished.
His bones and fleshed burned where the agreement had been written. Their contract had been voided, along with their ties to the physical plane.
“What kind of question is that?” She said. “Of course, you aren’t. You’re my baby.”
But he was already gone.
He had driven so long. He could barely hold his eyes open, but something kept him going. The cold air from the air conditioner blasted his face. He still had the money from the stung man and the boy’s father. Bills that were stained with blood. The Southern pines gave way to the flatness of the Midwest. He did not read the road signs. He did not know where he was, or what would happen when he shut his eyes.
The boy woke. Keith had nearly left him at every gas station, at every rest area. But he had failed at that too. You have to be there when he wakes up, he told himself. You owe him that much.
The questions Keith expected did not come.
Where is my dad?
Who are you?
Why did you kill him?
Instead what the boy said took him aback. His voice was strong, Keith couldn’t believe the boy was the same one he’d carried up the hill.
“What’s your favorite animal?”
Keith’s stump itched. When he looked in the rearview mirror, he saw fuzz growing from the boy’s head. The demons had taken his sickness away.
“I used to like dinosaurs,” Keith said.
“What kind? I like the T-Rex.”
“The big slow ones, but I think I like mammals better now.”
“Yeah, something like that,” Keith said.
The demons may come. If not when he closed his eyes tonight, then another night. Perhaps one would come during the day, in a sun dress, in a lonely Iowa gas station. He would have to keep guard, to run when he needed to.
And the boy? Keith would find a place for him, and if one didn’t exist, he’d show the boy how to make one. The way Keith had made the Candy Kingdom. He’d show the boy how to hold onto the faintest sliver of hope, even when the demons came. He’d show the boy how to survive.