Darkling

Jesus, I need your help.

I’ve been a pious woman all my life. A devoted wife for nearly forty years until my Franklin came home to be at your side. I’ve done nothing to invite evil into my home. Now, I’m its prisoner.

I was clipping coupons after church on the day the social worker brought Aiden to live with me. His eyes no longer resonated the sparkling wonder of an eleven-year-old boy. They carried the weight of tough decades. His voice didn’t sing with notes of merriment. On the rare occasions he spoke, it was one-word responses: “Fine,” “Okay,” “No.”

Doreen, the social worker told me this was normal after witnessing such horror as the day his parents died. His mind was lost in a deep hole and it would take years of love and therapy to pull him out.

I thought my days of caring for children were behind me once I’d retired from teaching public school. My days as a parent were long past. But I rolled up my sleeves and never complained.

“Aiden, your friend William invited you to a pool party. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

In truth, William’s parents had extended the invitation, as did other parents, at least for a time. But Aiden had no interested in swimming or cake.

As summer ebbed to fall, leaves turned to orange and red. Aiden never so much as looked up in awe of their beauty. When they fell, Aiden dutifully raked them into piles but never frolicked or leapt into them.

“You don’t want to go trick-or-treating? Don’t you like candy?”

I was never a fan of this devilish ritual, but his continued antipathy toward all childhood indulgences broke my heart.

When Thanksgiving neared, he scoffed at the notion of celebration.

“We can still celebrate Thanksgiving. You and I are family. I know, and I wish they were here too.”

Days grew short and snow came heavy. Other kids built snowmen and had snowball fights.

“You didn’t make a Christmas list. Don’t you want any toys or games? No, Santa can’t bring her back.”

I didn’t ask Aiden if he wanted a birthday party. He treated childhood as a purgatory in which birthdays only served as grim milestones.

The snow melted and spring rejuvenated the earth in bursts of color and the chorus of birds. I was washing dishes at the kitchen sink when I saw a smile on Aiden’s face for the first time in a year. He was sitting in the garden, cradling a robin’s nest. I went outside to join him, and we watched the blue eggs hatch. Tiny pink creatures with sealed eyes squawked.

“It’s best to leave them be,” I began until I registered strain on his face and a strange glee in his eye. He gripped an egg until it popped.

“Stop this. What are you doing?”

Holding a baby bird in his palm, he looked up at me, smiled, and squeezed.

We never spoke of that day, just as we never spoke of the day his parents died. I still don’t know what happened, though I have speculated over many sleepless nights.

Murder-suicide, officially. Blunt-force, lacerations, and some other terms I can’t bring myself to speak, even to you. I know you suffered for our sins, but what did my Emily suffer for?

My son-in-law was far from perfect, but he’d never laid a hand on my Emily so far as I could tell. Plus, this theory didn’t explain the state of his body. An animal attack some believed, but there was no sign of forced entry. No trail of bloody prints leaving the scene. Only Aiden, kneeling catatonic in a crimson pool.

Church was not negotiable. Aiden could skip the parties and sweets, but he was sure to get his dose of gospel under my roof. He never recited prayers or sang hymns, but only stared despondently through the entire sermon. I caught myself steeling glimpses of his face when the pastor would ask if we reject Satan and all his works.

On Easter, he asked me about the Resurrection.

“So Jesus went to Hell for three days?”

“Yes, to free the spirits of those who died before him.”

“What about the bad things that were supposed to stay down there? How would anyone know if one of them came back and pretended to be Him?”

Please forgive me, oh Lord. I slapped the blasphemy right out of his mouth.

#

In his thirteenth year, he surpassed my height of five-foot two. At fourteen, he towered over me. His pale skin stretched tight over sharp cheekbones. His ink-black eyes receded while his nose and chin elongated. Black hair fell in matted clumps on either side of his narrow face, like a bird peeking through a curtain.

The ladies in my bridge club always noted what a noble thing I was doing, and what a fine young man Aiden was becoming despite such adversity. But one by one they stopped coming. The invitations stopped as well, for both Aiden and me. I would hear whispers at church and in the grocery store. Ugly rumors spread, and I was quick to defend. After a while, we were both outcasts. That was fine by Aiden.

To my astonishment, Aiden started bringing a girlfriend over. A twiggy thing with raccoon eyes and black nails named Layla. Always chewed gum and popped bubbles. Her shorts had less fabric than my undergarments, and her loose shirts always slipped off one bony shoulder.

They seemed to feed off each other’s moodiness, but I was happy for him. That is until the day some of my jewelery went missing, including a diamond broach. It was an anniversary gift from Franklin, the last thing he bought me before he died of a stroke. I’m glad he lived long enough to hold baby Aiden in his arms. I’m glad that’s the memory of Aiden he took to the grave.

“Why are you blaming me? Maybe you misplaced it.”

Misplaced it? I don’t misplace things. I polish the silver when it looks dull. I wipe dust off the Venetian blinds and sweep under the fridge.

I think your hussy of a girlfriend stole it, I wanted to tell him. But as he glared at me, I noticed how impossibly black his eyes had become, like two glistening ink marbles.

I didn’t press the issue, and I didn’t invite him to church next week. But I silently prayed for him and put extra money in the collection plate to ensure you received my prayers.

I hired a man to bolt a safe to my closet floor and install a lock on my medicine cabinet. My remaining jewelry, which I never wore, was safe. But the brooch never materialized. I’d searched everywhere in the house except Aiden’s room.

I went through his drawers and his closet. The room stank of teenage body odor, so I changed the sheets and opened a window. I found a bag of catnip in his pants pocket. I’m no fool; I know what it was. But I couldn’t believe it. Not under my roof! Still, I found myself hesitant to throw it away. He would know.

I decided it was best to wash his clothes and claim ignorance if he asked. I opened the bag and ran his jeans in the wash. The whole load smelled like that stuff. I ran the load again and used lavender scented drier sheets but the stench clung.

“Who said you could go into my room? What gives you the right to search my private shit?”

“Your room? This is my house and I will not have you speak that filth to me while you live here. Besides, I was only doing the laundry. I wasn’t searching.”

“Yeah? Let’s see how you like it.”

Aiden stormed upstairs into my bedroom. Something tipped over with a crash. I poured a glass of Brandy with a shaking hand and considered calling the police. He was up there, stealing and trashing my room. What would happen if he was arrested? A mark on his record that would follow into adult hood. No, what went on in this house would stay here, but I wouldn’t sit idly while my grandson ransacked my room.

I drank down my courage and started up the stairs.

Aiden slammed my door and stood above me, looking larger and darker than he ever had. The whole of his eyes were solid black hollows that seemed to drink in the light around him. He snarled and bared his teeth. The canines were long and sharp. His visage shook my core but I refused to show my fear.

I marched up the stairs and he tromped down from above. As we passed, his broad shoulder struck mine and I tumbled backwards. My hip cracked as I landed in a heap.

I told the hospital staff I slipped and fell as they showed me x-rays of my fractured hip. I know he was mad, but I don’t think he intended to hurt me. He didn’t push me with his hands.

Aiden didn’t visit me at the hospital in the days of recuperation, and I didn’t much want to see him. When I returned home, I moved into the guest room on the first floor. We hardly spoke to each other, and I tried not to look at those black eyes.

Layla’s eyes had grown black too, and once I swore I saw a second set of eyelids blink from the sides.

One day I found them both in the kitchen, feasting noisily on a chicken carcass.  Layla hissed at me; her tongue flickered like a snake. They no longer spoke in words, only grunts and shrieks.

At night, I lay in bed beneath his room. The pillow pressed to my ear did little to drown out the foul sounds those two made. It wasn’t teenage puppy love. It was savage, brutal, and it went on for hours. They both sported cuts and bruises after their violent sessions.

#

I was able to ascend the stairs and return to my bedroom after a few weeks. The safe in my closet was missing. The bolt was torn from the floor.

“Where is my safe,” I demanded.

Aiden and Layla were hunched on the kitchen floor, gorging on cans of soup that appeared to be ripped open from the side. Their spines curved like question marks. Their elongated necks protruded from the front of their chests. I couldn’t make sense of these deformations, nor their voracious appetites that emptied my pantry. All I knew was that these things could stay no longer.

“I want you out of my house.” I wrenched the can of soup from his hands and repeated myself.

Aiden looked up at me, his chin dripping with red sauce, obsidian eyes glistening with malice. Layla stopped binging and joined him. Two predators leering at me.

My heart thundered and I pressed a finger to my crucifix pendant.

The pair rose to their feet. Their arms nearly hung to the floor. Curved talons at the ends of long, webbed fingers.

What in God’s name have you become?

I backed away, reciting a prayer as they closed in on me.

“Leave my house, you vile filth!”

They moved to either side of me with greedy smiles. Then they lunged. Each of them gripped an arm with their talon-like claws. They made inhuman squeals of delight as they dragged me to the basement door.

Aiden flung me down the stairs. I’m sure broke several bones as I tumbled to the unforgiving concrete, but this time there would be no hospital. They would leave me here to die.

Creaking footsteps descended. They weren’t done with me.

I twisted my neck with some degree of effort to face my attackers.

“Just kill me. Do it quick,” I pleaded.

Aiden reached down and ripped at my blouse.

“What are you doing?”

Layla bit into my skirt and tore the fabric with her teeth. They shredded my clothes until I lay naked and helpless on the floor.

I don’t know how to put into words what happened next. All I know is that I stopped thinking of him as Aiden, or as my grandson, or as human. I had to, for my own sanity.

The creature climbed onto my back. I faded in and out of consciousness, praying for you to take me to heaven and spare me this indignity. My flesh was violated in ways I couldn’t comprehend. The girl-thing cackled and joined in, biting and scratching me, using its fingers to complete my humiliation.

The pain was excruciating, but that wasn’t all I felt.

Oh, how cruel the Devil is to infuse our bodies with the sin of lust. Lord help me, my deepest moment of despair came laced with a pleasure that I hadn’t experienced since Franklin shared my bed. My body could not distinguish the source. Love or lust, pain or pleasure, purity or desecration.

I don’t know how long it went on, but darkness took hold and I surrendered. I woke up shivering and alone, with the taste of blood in my mouth. I had to get out.

The pine stairs were like a mountain. I shifted my bottom onto the first stair. Pain shot through my broken hip. I gripped the banister and pulled myself up a step. One step at a time. They couldn’t lock the door from the outside. I could wait until they left or slept, then drag myself out the front door.

Screams and crashing from above masked the sounds of my movement. They were in the living room so I couldn’t leave now. As I reached the top of the stairs, the screams intensified to an eardrum-bursting crescendo, then died down.

I peered beneath the door. My vision was blurry, so I couldn’t tell what I was seeing. Two naked bodies. At first I thought they were having each other on the floor, but only one was moving. They were covered in blood, that was unmistakable.

One creature lay prostrate on its back, while the other buried its face into the stomach. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I covered my mouth to stifle a scream.

Aiden had killed Layla and was now consuming her body. He slurped and gnashed into her ravaged belly, then reared his head back, tearing out intestines and organs.

I slid back down the stairs, breath held, and crawled to the far corner where I screamed until my throat grew hoarse. This was no longer a test of faith. Somehow I have offended you, oh Lord, and you have forsaken me to the bowels of Hell.

What about the bad things that were supposed to stay down there? How would anyone know if one of them came back and pretended to be Him?

#

Days went by. I prayed for death as my body struggled to survive.

An overflow pan beneath the furnace brimmed with water from excess condensation. I pushed away floating crickets and slurped the musty water.

I subsisted on jars of marmalade and pickled vegetables, wondering why Aiden didn’t come down here and finish me off. With the last embers of his humanity extinguished, perhaps he forgot I existed, or that there was even a world outside this house.

I could hear him skulking around up there, and I shuddered to think what state Layla’s corpse was in. Ripped to shreds, no doubt. Like Emily and Luke.

The food would run out upstairs, and then he’d come for me. I had to be ready.

Franklin had been a pack rat and I could never bring myself to throw out his things, so our basement contained shelves overflowing with items I could use: mouse traps, sewing kits, tackle boxes, and power tools.

I tied a fishing line across the stairs as trip wire. Then I smashed the empty marmalade jars and placed shards of glass alongside mouse traps on the stairs. I was pretty sure Aiden no longer wore clothes, but I doubted pain would slow it down much.

I then disassembled an old lamp until it was little more than an electrical wire plugged into the outlet at the base of the stairs. The bare wires rested on the bottom step, attached to a string I could pull to tug them to the floor.

With all my might, I opened the drain on the water heater. The cracks in the concrete couldn’t absorb as fast as the water flowed, and soon there was a skim of water surrounding the staircase.

I was in the back corner beneath the fuse panel. Periodically, I flipped the fuses to the upstairs, and then I waited.

I waited as water flooded the basement. It felt cool against my bare legs.

The basement door opened.

Aiden took a step down, screeching into the darkness.

My hand gripped the string, ready to pull the wires.

“Come and get me,” I shouted.

He took another step, and here we are.

Jesus, I call upon your strength to do what must be done. I envision you descending to Hell to face Satan and his minions. I know you were victorious, oh Lord. I know it was you who returned.