An essay by Star Posey, as provided by Megan Dorei
Art by Leigh Legler
These records are as much for my sanity as they are for posterity. It’s long past due for me to share my findings, and exterior circumstances have motivated me to do so.
There might be someone out there who remembers.
I arrive home around midnight to find Sarah waiting on the stairs. She is a deeper shadow than the rest, punctuated by neon orange eyes. I freeze. For a moment, I feel acutely judged. I stifle the urge to tell her that it’s perfectly acceptable for a twenty-five-year-old partial shut-in to go trick-or-treating. It’s practically therapy, at this point.
Instead, I simply say, “Howdy.”
Low, rattling suspicion hums from her chest, but she stays motionless. Guilt clogs my throat. She’s hungrier than I thought. I spread my arms apologetically before realizing that in my bed-sheet ghost costume, it’s merely a flaring of wings.
“You wanna try out some more options?”
Nothing about her posture indicates enough patience to undergo yet another investigation into her eating habits. Because she doesn’t speak (at least not a language I understand), I’ve spent hours trying and failing to puzzle out her nutritional needs.
Though the door is closed, I still look behind me as I remove the sheet. Tonight was therapy, yes, but it doesn’t feel like it. Unease needles my stomach. The stranger didn’t follow me here as far as I saw, but the feeling of being watched remains.
Distracted as I am, it takes me a moment to realize that Sarah is tracking the movement of the pillowcase in my hand. She is silent now, her eyes swelling like pumpkins–not simply her pupils, but her whole eyes. Fascinating.
“You want this?” I shake the bag so the candy clatters.
Her splines flare along her back and begin to pulse a surreal, bruising purple.
“I’ll … take that as a yes.”
Tentatively I slide the sack toward her. She snatches it up in her multitude of talons (directly beneath her knife-edged fingers is a second set of retractable claws) and disappears upstairs.
“Oh … ‘kay. I’ll just … I’ll just get some chocolate from the store later. That’s coolioz. It’ll be on sale.”
Despite losing my candy, I’m excited. For weeks, she’s been indifferent to all manner of nutriment and my haphazard guesses of what that might be (demons don’t always eat what humans eat, after all). The only difference between the candy I offered a week ago and tonight’s is that I trick-or-treated for it. Jury’s still out until I run conclusive tests, but perhaps it means that whatever she eats must be related to or acquired on Halloween.
Hyped from my discovery (and my disquieting candy quest), I start on the week-old dishes in the sink instead of pretending to sleep.
A familiar slither-clank preludes the appearance of a translucent tentacle from the drain. I grin and reach for it.
“What’s up, dude?”
The tentacle coils around my hand, squeezing inquisitively at the scar on my palm.
“Hey, now. You know it ain’t feeding night for you, you little garbage gut.”
“Little” is hilariously inaccurate, of course. I’ve tried to take measurements, but all I can positively ascertain is that he has enough body mass to fill all my pipes at once and is probably bigger than that.
He gives a disgruntled squeeze and snakes along the bottom of the sink, absorbing food scraps into his flesh. Though he needs fresh blood to survive, he enjoys the taste of just about anything. He also secretes incredible healing properties, though only at his own whims. It took three months of bonding before he started healing my palm himself.
The quiet is companionable for a while–not like Tom talks anyway. But my thoughts keep flickering, numbing me with their increasing frequency.
“I don’t know when he started following me,” I finally say. My motions are robotic now. I scrub the same plate repeatedly.
“I looked behind me and he was just … there. A few yards behind me, standing in the sidewalk. Kids parted around him like water breaking around a rock and he just … stared at me. Grinned at me like we shared this big secret, like he was seeing right under the sheet. And I felt … marked. Or like–like I was in a big, crowded room, separated from everyone by one-way glass.”
My neck tingles. Though the blinds are shut, I glance at the window.
“Every time I turned around, he was there. Smiling from behind a tree or a group of kids who didn’t even seem to notice him. I thought I’d have to trick-or-treat my ass down to a police station, but he disappeared two blocks from here.”
I want to confess more, like his gnarled, flamboyant grin, or the way he never blinked, never moved an inch when I spotted him. But the images flurry my brain with a dread I can’t acknowledge.
I heave a sigh. I work from home. I never leave the house except to buy necessities (although I put that off as long as I can) and to celebrate my favorite holiday. Even such minimal interaction with the outside world apparently isn’t enough to screen me.
Tom squiggles up the side of the sink. I quirk my mouth to the side.
“I don’t know … You think I’m being paranoid?”
In answer, he tips over the dish soap.
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
Tiny jars me from a nightmare early in the morning, and I feel sick the rest of the day. He’s unapologetic about it, abusing my ear drums with his dreamlike, submarine wail. He’s entirely blind, but even so, I feel him glaring at me as I lurch out of bed.
My nerves prickle as I step into my backyard. Small and shielded by leafy, hulking trees, I usually feel secure back here. But the stranger’s smile flashes in my mind, and my hands shake opening the shed.
I take shallow breaths through my teeth while I gather Tiny’s food. Rotting flesh is all he eats, so when roadkill is unavailable, I toss a few steaks in here to turn. It’s been months, and I still can’t stomach the stench.
I’m finishing up when I spot a figure paused on the sidewalk, peering down the gap between houses to my backyard. She’s vaguely familiar as the neighbor on my left, though I don’t know her name. My pulse kicks a bit at the prospect of interacting with her. Awkwardly I raise my hand, but she continues to stare, unashamed and empty.
Beyond her, in a yard across the street, a pair of children pause mid-soccer game to turn their vacant eyes on me.
My throat locks. Runnels of panic seep through me, dewing my joints so that every movement as I scramble to my feet is a challenge. I try to keep my gait steady as I return to the house, but every inch of me screams to run.
Tiny lands on my shoulder the moment I step inside, yowling for the sack of rancid meat. Shaking, I sneak to the living room. My heart thuds sickly as I peer out the window. There’s a clear view in either direction from here, but I see no sign of my neighbor. The kids are gone, the ball abandoned in the yard.
Tiny warbles curiously in my ear. His echoing, underwater quaver loosens the tension in my shoulders. I force my numb fingers to scratch behind the crooked horn on the side of his head.
“It’s okay. It’s okay.”
I don’t know if I’m telling him or myself.
Though I remain on edge, I continue the feeding schedule, leaving Tiny in the kitchen to tear into his bag of rot. Victor is first, greeting me with his usual scowl as I kneel at the side of my bed. He is mostly humanoid in appearance, despite the way his skin melts from his frame like gray sludge. His eyes are of the oil slick variety, his teeth disturbingly white and straight in his oozy skull. They gleam balefully as I reach under the bed and pour out his daily bucketful of worms and grave dirt. I don’t have the heart to give him live worms. Just the ones I see dried out on the pavement after it rains. He hasn’t complained yet.
Tom wiggles from the tub drain to greet me in the bathroom. I disinfect the razorblade before slicing a neat, shallow line through my palm. While he feeds, I sit on the edge of the tub. Months back, I would’ve had to cut him off myself, but now he releases me after the allotted minute has passed with what I choose to believe is politeness.
Lastly, I head to the kitchen, where it takes a few low whistles to beckon Tabby from the shadows under the oven.
By far the scariest in appearance, she is contrastingly gentle and quite shy. Her four limbs–all long, gray human arms–crack as she unfolds. Her joints get stiff from crouching so long. It’s been a while since I’ve walked her, but she only enjoys being outside on overcast nights.
Also, I can’t exactly pass her off as a labradoodle.
Since she has no torso, only a shriveled head, she doesn’t eat physical food. Her nourishment comes from living energy, which I provide by being an absolute disaster zone of anxiety.
She sits stationary while she pulls the energy from me, allowing me a chance to brush her hair. It gets tangled and greasy under the oven, not to mention the spider webs netting her scalp. The process calms me as much as it calms her. By the time we’re finished, my apprehension is floating beneath a haze of quietude.
“Good looking out, Tabs.”
She croons a low winter howl. As far as I can tell, they’re the only sounds she makes, but I’m getting pretty good at deciphering the emotions behind them.
I breathe evenly, focusing on the fullness of my lungs. Everything’s okay.
“You guys wanna listen to some music?”
There is a pulse of approval from the whole gang; I feel it as a wave of pressure and a pleasant flip of the stomach.
So I curl up on the bed with Tiny and Tabby. I can’t see the others, but I feel their attention and–much as they might resist it–their attachment. Instrumental dream pop is our favorite. It soothes their ragged edges.
The thing about fostering demons is that not all of them are foster-able. I think that should be clear from the get-go. And even if you succeed in bonding with one, you have to decide where to draw certain lines, or they will do it themselves, not always pleasantly.
Victor, for instance, used to haunt children, hiding beneath their beds and altering their REM sleep to give them night terrors. That’s how we met. I was fourteen at the time and deep into lucid dreaming, which was the only reason I was able to thwart his attempts.
After bonding (as much as he allowed, I should say), I was able to convince him to target heinous adults instead. I’m studying him now to learn how exactly he disrupts sleep, and what insight it may provide into insomnia.
Tabby used to target people with severe mental illness, draining them of what little energy they clung to. As such, my avoidant personality disorder was a siren call to her. However, she was eager to bond and eager to adopt less harmful methods. I find it difficult to leave the house without allowing her to swallow my anxiety first.
It’s my belief that she may hold the key to the management of mental illnesses, and the same can be said of Tiny. However, despite these successes and the innovation they may lead to, it’s crucial to note that I’ve had many failures along the way. Demons are among the most dangerous entities, and nothing changes that fact. The run-ins I’ve had with less-amenable beings forced me to make sword and shield out of science and superstition. Not to mention the risk of sparking manifestations. The energy we put out doesn’t stop existing, after all. It regroups and becomes its own, and sometimes it finds its way back to us.
But if I can combat the demons that would do me harm, maybe I can combat the ones in my head.
If I can shed light on these shadows, maybe I can see the world more brightly, too.
Tiny wakes me up around three in the morning, in time to see a figure press their face to my balcony door. Horror shrivels the scream on its way out of my throat; I can barely manage a whimper. It’s too dark to see what they look like or if I recognize them, but despite this, it’s obvious they see me.
They can’t. They can’t.
But I feel their stare. Under it, I am an insect pinned to a spreading board.
With a rippling bay, Tiny catapults from my chest and into the glass. The stranger stumbles backward, nearly tipping over the edge. Tiny makes another sound too fearsome for his slight frame, scraping the glass with his horns. The figure hops the railing and disappears.
Tiny buzzes by the door like an angry wasp until I find enough air to call him back.
“Good looking out, buddy,” I croak.
He growls and curls up on my chest, where he remains for the rest of the night.
Neither of us sleeps.
I spend a good amount of the day pacing with phone in hand.
I should call the cops. Or someone. I know that. But every time I start to dial, panic wells in me, choking everything else. It’s familiar like the first kiss of autumn after a long summer. Like death in the trees, sucking their vitality to barren gray.
I can’t. I can’t interact with anyone, can’t even imagine it. I flush with terror at the thought, and it’s illogical and all-consuming and I can’t breathe.
Besides, some soft but insistent reflex floods me with doubt. What if calling the cops does no good? There’s … there’s something wrong in my neighborhood. I can feel it like a physical presence, lurking right on the edge of sight.
Tabby and Tiny try to soothe me, but my heart rate remains peaked, and I can’t stop checking that the doors are locked.
It hasn’t been this bad in years.
Though the urge is near-stifling, I can’t bring myself to look out the windows.
The numbers remain half-dialed.
All day, I’m convinced the demons’ agitation is in response to mine until around sundown, when the scratching starts.
First outside the window in the kitchen. Then the back door. Then the front. Like someone dragging their nails heavily against the side of the house. Multiple someones.
Blank with terror, I sprint for the stairs. In my rush, I trip halfway up, and I don’t bother getting to my feet, reverting to some primal nature as I lurch for the closet on all fours. Dimly I register the cries of Tiny and Tabby, and a dense clanking that can only be Tom.
I pull myself all the way to the back corner of the closet. Beside me is the plush unicorn that Sarah hollowed out as a nest. Its marble eyes are backlit by her fiery glare.
I think my lungs are leaking. I can’t take a deep enough breath to fill them. The scraping continues downstairs, and all I can think of is that night, trick-or-treating, and how I shouldn’t have gone, I shouldn’t have gone, I shouldn’t have ever left the house …
Rustling jolts me. I turn, nearly hyperventilating, and my eyes fall on a scattering of candy wrappers on the floor. Spelling something out …
My lungs ice over. Sarah blinks at me over the words, and I realize she made them.
“What?” is all the whisper I can manage.
Her talons spear the wrappers and quickly rearrange them to spell: him.
A thump from downstairs sends a javelin through my chest. They’re getting in. They’re going to get in.
Sarah growls, reclaiming my attention. The words are a noose around my neck.
Not a man.
The stranger. The stranger with the jagged smile who no one seemed to notice. The stranger who appeared and vanished like the spark of a fizzling match. I should’ve realized sooner.
He’s a demon.
Before I can recover, the thump comes again, loud enough to be heard over Tabby and Tiny’s maelstrom. A window shatters below, and my lungs shatter with it.
I scream as a figure appears in the doorway. But its melting skin is familiar a beat later.
“Victor,” I gasp.
He gnashes his teeth. “You are the demon mother. Fight.”
His words shudder through me, lighting my blood like it’s gasoline. I still can’t feel my lungs, and I can’t sort a coherent thought from my brain except one.
I am the demon mother. I do this shit for a living.
My knees shake on their way to standing, but I don’t hesitate for the stairs. I’m not sure what I’m expecting, but the sight that greets me freezes the breath in my throat.
Tiny is barring the path on the bottom landing, screeching at the multitude of strangers staggering into my house. They’re human, but they move like zombies, lurching through doors, worming through windows. Many of them are bleeding from gashes, a few of them embedded with broken glass. Some of them are dotted with bruises–from breaking down the doors, I realize.
But it’s their eyes that stun me, the lurid oblivion there. How they swallow me without seeing me.
Standing in the center of the living room, the demon shows his teeth. Tendrils of darkness branch from him to the others like connective tissue. Magnetizing them. Shrinking the world around me.
My insides shrivel, and I am small and helpless. I am alone in a crowded room, but now the glass is taken away and there is nothing between me and the world.
Cold sweat dews on the back of my neck. I can’t. I can’t …
One of the people–one of the shells for the demon’s energy–closes in on me before I can recover. With a yowl, Tiny lunges at them, wrapping his whole body around their arm and yanking them down to the floor.
This wakes me up. I don’t have a weapon, no plan to defend myself.
But the demon is mine, the manifestation of my own negative energy.
It regroups and becomes its own, and sometimes it finds its way back to us.
I make a beeline for him, dodging the hands that grab at me. He smiles wider. An unearthly chill clutches my stomach, and my pace stutters. Someone grabs my hair and wrenches me back.
Tabby’s howl rends the air, loud like the gale of a storm. She flashes into my view, all four limbs fastening around my attacker’s head like a cage, and opens her mummied lips to siphon the dark aura from them.
Their fingers go limp. I stumble free, very nearly crashing to the floor as two more zombie shells swipe at me. In my peripheral, I spot long, gleaming tentacles whipping angrily out of the bathroom and kitchen, restraining several attackers at a time.
The loyalty of my demons bolsters me. I lock eyes with my manifestation, and my muscles seize with fear. Not one fear. All my fears, every one, saturate me, whirring in my mind a mile a minute. But I don’t stop. I have no plan, only instinct, as I lunge headlong at the creature.
As soon as I touch him, my stomach cartwheels, and I swallow back vomit. Ice surrounds me, burning me, suffocating me. I grapple with his limbs but I can barely see, can barely feel.
Fight, I think. Fight.
Clammy fingers fasten around my throat. I claw and kick and struggle, but it’s too cold, too dark …
A flash of purple in the dark, phosphorescent and punishing.
The crushing weight around my throat vanishes, and I fall to the floor. Through a shimmer of tears, I watch Sarah bowl the demon to the floor and sink her talons into his flesh. Her veins are glowing purple. I follow a line of it down to her jagged claws, trace the spider web of light as it thrums into the demon’s abdomen.
He roars. The ghoulish sound rips me down like a tidal wave, but still I reach until I can wrap my own hands around his neck.
He thrashes, bearing a new set of serrated, dripping teeth. His eyes scorch mine, trying to force that fear on me, trying to turn my own mind against itself.
I shake my head, barely gathering enough breath to say, “Fuck off.”
In a last burst of strength, I snap his neck. I will think later on the impossibility of that (and the implications concerning human strength vs. demonic manifestations), but in that moment I’m too exhausted.
Around me, the zombie shells stop fighting to get to me. They stand still for a moment, eyes blank as winter skies, before turning and lumbering away.
My demons fall silent. Tabby and Tiny converge on me, crooning their concern.
“Good looking out, guys,” I rasp and collapse on the floor.
No one has come forward with any memory of that night, but I’m still waiting. My neighborhood must wonder where the cuts and bruises came from.
I am continuing my research. I will never stop. There are still so many questions, and I realize now that I am the sword and shield of this community as much as I am my own.
Also, I am leaving my house every day now. Baby steps, you know?
I am mother to my demons, and I am mother to my own light.
I’m on my way, I guess.
Star Posey supposes the world will label her as a demonologist, and she’s just fine with that, although she prefers to think of herself as a foster mom to all broken and wayward things. She studies all manner of science in her spare time and is working on gathering a horde of Halloween candy for a friend who lives in her closet.
Megan Dorei is a lover of all things horror and strange. She has been published in such works as Sirens Call Publications’ Bellows of the Bone Box, Dark Moon Digest #14, Flame Tree Publishing’s Gothic Fantasy: Dystopia Utopia, and Transmundane Press’ On Fire anthology. She lives in Lawrence, KS, with her fiancée and probably several ghosts.
Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.
“A Home for Wayward Demons” is © 2019 Megan Dorei
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Leigh Legler