Demonology, or Gratitude
Hugh Sheehy | Fiction
For a while I lived with an older woman. Anyway, that’s what I told people. It would be more accurate to say she stayed with me when she had nowhere else to go. The lease for the tiny house where she came and went as she pleased was in my name, and I was the one who stocked the refrigerator and cupboards and cleaned the place and covered her shivering body with an afghan after she passed out and turned her on her side when that’s what was needed. I was generous when she asked for money, and I didn’t mind that she never repaid loans or offered to help with bills or thanked me for feeding her cat when she wasn’t around. Really, I felt lucky to have her in my life. I’d have put up with just about anything to make her stay.
Friends say I must have been naïve or suffering from low self-esteem, and it’s easy to see why. I was in my early twenties then and had moved across the country to escape a fundamentalist community obsessed with the beady-eyed images of dismembered fetuses and cartoons depicting lakes of fire, and though family still recorded daily voicemails proclaiming that Jesus awaited my return with open arms and angels watched over til then, I felt I had successfully broken with the beliefs that ruined my childhood. Finally, I could drink twelve beers or watch strangers fuck online or sleep late on Sunday without dreading social consequences. I felt like a new person, a blank slate, and with this came a certain blankness of character. I had a mild personality that matched my plain looks and my sweatshirt-and-jeans sense of style. I had a decent job, and my needs were so simple, my desires so unimaginative, that I found myself in the pleasant state of not worrying about money. I was happy, or thought I was, because my life was better than before.
I was in love with Nora. What I mean is: I wanted to be with her always, and if that impossible, I wanted to marry her, so I could trust her when we were apart. I thought about her when I was awake and dreamed while sleeping, though never more than when she was out, God knows where, with God knows who, doing God knows what. She was in her late thirties, a former model and actress who liked to say she’d given up her career to search for something real. She was exceptionally beautiful, six feet of human magic with long hair and eyes that never stopped loving you. Strangers gawked at us in diners or at the park, and though their baffled smirks made me nervous, Nora was graciously oblivious. When we met, she was partying a lot, and her old activist friends had taken to calling her an unreliable druggie. Some told me she needed professional help, as if I cared what they thought as much as Nora did. But to me, the environmentalists were as absurd as the Christians. Both groups had their sacred and unquestionable tenets. Both groups knew they were right, and everyone else was wrong. I kept their words to myself, hoping to guard Nora’s feelings.
Her drug habits bothered me less than how superstitious she was. She had long sober stretches, during which she made the same insane pronouncements she foisted on me when she was loaded. Her ideas were all over the place, unlimited by traditional religious views. She believed in channeling spirits, past lives, and claimed she’d been a sex slave in some obscure Roman colony. Everything that happened was fated, from the one you fell in love with down to spider bites and the snowflakes that landed in your hair. Horoscopes were the newspapers’ only truth.
I struggled to control my disappointment when she shared these impressions. I’d learned young how to use beliefs against others, that you could make someone weep by spelling a dead relative’s message with an Ouija planchette or give them permission to scream by saying you’d seen a ghost behind them. I refused to think anyone respectable could believe in demons, gods, prophecy, or any of the other things Nora claimed were real, and because she was so damaged, from drugs and from things men (women, too, but mostly men) had done to her over the years, I told myself she’d eventually learn she could trust me, that she would then stop pretending and admit she and I were alone in the same godless world.
Toward the end, she disappeared for days at a stretch, turning up completely burned out, thin and skunky with secretions (both her own and those of others), mumbling she’d been involved in some march or demonstration. I knew she’d been in bars and strange apartments and houses and backseats, getting as stoned as possible and trying to stay that way. I kept these observations mum, reminding myself I was still young, growing and changing. That she could soon tire of being strung out. That, with a few slight modifications, a relationship might click into place.
One night while she was gone, I was in the living room, watching a trivia program to pass the hours until I could sleep, concentrating on each question to avoid thinking about what Nora was probably doing with some other male. I knew all the answers and said each one aloud in the lamp-light, as if it were a meager little prayer.
Thunderstorms had come and gone all afternoon, flooding the alley and inspiring the neighbor’s kids to paddle their inflatable raft around. The TV went to a commercial, and I heard rain lash the windows and remembered Nora’s cat had asked to go out earlier. A happy-go-lucky tabby named Rasputin, he was probably crying at the door. I cursed over rain and TV and got up to let him in.
The night was blustery and wet, and I covered my eyes as a dark shape streaked across the grass and up the steps, past my feet. As I turned, drying my chin, I heard the cat’s distinct voice behind me and looked out once more. Rasputin sat below in the rain, waiting to be called.
My immediate thought was that I’d let in a feral cat, and now I needed to remove it before it ruined the furniture, and that I had to do so without getting bitten or scratched. I felt a pang of self-pity and consoled myself with the thought that one day Nora and I would look back on this night and so many like it and laugh, and that she would then touch my face and convey an erotically charged mixture of contrition and gratitude.
I closed the door and searched the flickering shadows for a weapon or makeshift trap, bracing myself for the ambush of teeth and claws that would surely come at any moment. I settled on a cheap skillet and advanced into the living room, where the trivia show had returned. The studio audience was cheering the ancient, self-satisfied host.
That was when I saw the thing I have never been able to name. It floated in the middle of the room, hovering like a helium balloon on a string. Filmy, vaguely insubstantial, it could only be described as a dark gray blob, a kind of unevenly round bubble. It had no eyes or mouth or face or discernable front, and it was transparent, in that the front door showed, slightly distorted, through the other side. The blob thing was noiseless, but it gave off the feeling of someone thinking in the same enclosed space. It was not doing anything I could identify.
I stood there, caught up in frenzied thoughts. The blob thing was real. It was not real. Someone was playing a trick, but how? The room was small and sparely furnished, with nowhere to conceal a projector. Besides, who in this part of the world would craft such an illusion for my benefit? The only person west of the Mississippi who knew me personally was Nora, and she was too afraid of spirits to ever counterfeit one for a laugh, that being more like something I would have done in high school. It went without saying that I was awake.
I tried a little talking, hoping that might change things. “Okay,” I said. “You’re hallucinating.”
The blob thing did not respond in any perceptible manner, and I wondered, Was it gelatinous? Gaseous? I was tempted but afraid to touch it. I wanted to call for help, but no person would have heard. And I was sober. The only explanation was that something had collapsed in my brain, a blood vessel or cognitive divide between dreaming and perceiving, and the best I could do was wait until I recovered or someone came to take me away.
I might have remained there all night, staring at the blob thing, had not Nora chosen this moment to walk in.
She was under the influence of some energizing compound, probably something she’d licked off a piece of foil, convulsing with scratchy laughter as her bulging eyes took in the room. She had someone with her. She staggered right through the blob thing, parting it like a hologram, leaving it intact behind her. She threw herself onto the couch and started in on the crazy talk. “Thank Goddess for this weather!” she declared, shivering in the sodden shirt and tiny cutoff shorts that displayed the alchemical tattoos that covered her magnificent chest, arms, and thighs. “Pacha Mama’s not going down without a fight. That’s not just my feeling. This is where Modern Paganism and science agree.”
I watched her with a feeling like she was drowning, and I could not help her, because I was drowning, too. Her face sagged under her eyes, pale and slick like she was coming down with something. Somehow this had the effect of making her prettier.
“Eddie hates when I talk about my spiritual side,” she was telling the creep she’d brought home. “Don’t you, Eddie? Are you cooking? I’m starving.”
I looked at the skillet in my hand, then at the gray blob thing that neither she nor her guest had acknowledged. She did not wait for an answer, was too busy pulling the other man down onto the couch.
Only now did I look at him. She had a weakness for large, macho eccentrics who wore trench coats and referenced obscure occult texts, men who claimed to have vast and esoteric understandings of the forces behind matter. They tended to be long-haired and heavily bearded, to work in bookstores and to play in local bands. They saw themselves as artists, philosophers, revolutionaries, and they didn’t think twice about telling you so. They felt I was the wrong guy for Nora and seemed to think it their responsibility to take her from me. When they inevitably left, they tended to steal from us, or leave turds drifting in the toilet, or both.
This man was another in that series. He groped Nora’s thigh with an enormous, hairy hand.
“Eddie, meet Charles,” Nora said. “Charles, meet Eddie.”
His physical sprawl occupied half the couch. He wore an old blue factory uniform shirt with a name patch that read Manuel. His dark hair and beard were shaggy and long, and he watched me with small, petulant eyes, radiating a smart-alecky malice I associated with serial killers and high school jocks.
I wondered if either of them could see the blob thing. I considered the possibility that they were intoxicated enough to presume they were hallucinating. Charles’s stare was burning into me, and I realized he wanted me to say hi first, that, for him, withholding one’s greeting was a power move. I pretended not to notice. It was my only weapon against him.
“Charles is an activist,” Nora explained, looking around the room and scratching goosebumped arms. “He wants to blow up the lumber company. He used to fight for our country.”
“Is that right?” I said, thinking, Too bad he didn’t die for it.
“The group that kicked me out for bullshit reasons? They expelled him, too” she went on, smiling at the blob thing, apparently unable to see it. “They thought he was FBI or some kind of paramilitary infiltrator, all because he has the nerve to do what it takes to save the planet.”
Charles’s voice was deep and loud. “I was in military intelligence, but I’d appreciate you keeping that under your hat,” he said gruffly. “We don’t want to attract the wrong attention.”
“Sure, Scout’s honor,” I said, though I’d never joined.
“Where’s Rasputin?” Nora said.
The cat! I had forgotten all about him. “He’s outside,” I confessed miserably.
“Eddie, he’s probably soaked!” Nora rushed past me.
This left me alone with Charles and the blob thing. I looked at one and then the other.
I asked Charles, “Notice anything strange in here?”
He squinted fiercely, as if to ask what the hell I was talking about. He appeared to perceive me primarily as an obstacle to fucking.
“Never mind,” I said.
Charles turned to the TV, blinked, and said, “The Alamo,” spitting it out before the contestants on the trivia program could answer.
I looked back. The blob thing was gone, the middle of the room the empty space it usually was. I felt flooded with relief and laughed involuntarily, peering into the recesses of the hall to make sure it hadn’t moved while I was distracted. Everything in the house looked normal again. Maybe, I thought with profound gratitude, my mind was not broken.
I grinned at Charles, my eyes damp in spite of the natural hatred I felt toward him.
He looked at me and said, “I have a body now.”
He twisted his head back toward the television.
Nora came back, holding Rasputin wrapped in a bundle of dish towels. The cat looked at me, content to be swaddled in his owner’s arms.
The trivia show was ending. Nora and Rasputin snuggled into the shelter of Charles’s arm. I pretended to watch the credits, waiting for my heartbeat to slow so I could walk back to my room, lock myself inside, and wait for something terrible to happen.
For now, she was happy. “I’ve been having a lot of fun,” she sighed. “But it’s good to be home and safe.”
Before she moved in, Nora would bring dead factory farm animals to the pet crematorium where I was the sole employee. My workdays were long and dull and consisted of incinerating dead cats and dogs and depositing their ashes into boxes pet hospital employees came to collect later, so when Nora appeared one morning, rapping shyly on the door’s latticed window and asking for help, it was a welcome break in the monotony.
She was then living on a commune where the members cared for rescued chickens, goats, pigs, and lambs from factory farms. Sometimes the animals did not recover, in which case Nora brought them to me. The little corpses were pitiful sights, underdeveloped and obese, mangy, missing eyes and limbs, stinking of shit and piss. I piled them onto the hearth gently, dutifully, sadly aware they’d been mistreated while alive. The big cremation chamber could destroy a thousand pounds in one go, and it never took long to burn them away. Nora hung around, waiting for the ashes to scatter in the river later, and soon we had a routine of making small talk while the oven hummed. Things were easygoing between us, and I soon thought of her as my first real friend, though I would never have admitted that to her.
“Ever mix them up?” she asked one day. “Like, send ashes to the wrong house?”
I laughed in surprise and lied, said no, because naturally I had, first by accident, and later, experimentally, on purpose. I’d surrendered to an impish desire to see if owners would somehow notice they had the wrong cremains and send them back. Of course nobody ever did, because keeping ashes was symbolic and nothing more. Once I understood people were satisfied by a tin can with their pet’s name on it, I lost interest and went back to sending the incinerated pets home. It was embarrassing to remember now.
“I hate the thought of mixing them up,” Nora said, her soulful eyes searching my face. “Poor, lost little ghosts.”
Until this moment, I’d thought she was just an aging hipster with a big heart. Unable to hide my disapproval, I shrugged and grumbled that it didn’t matter, people didn’t know one heap of ashes from another. “Bones are bones,” I said. “Everyone is forgotten in the end.”
“So you’re a Taurus and closeminded.”
“Whatever,” I said, eager to talk about something else.
“You’re a special person, Eddie.” She gazed at me as if I’d made her sad. “But if you’re not careful, you’ll be a locked box, cut off from the universe forever.”
It bothered me to think of myself that way, sealed inside my own mind for all time, but I forgot it a few days later, when Nora came to the crematorium sobbing desperately. Something had happened at the commune, and they’d forced her to leave. She said she’d been treated unfairly, and I accepted this explanation without hesitating, more interested in the opportunity I instantly recognized than in finding out the details.
“What am I going to do?” she asked, her golden hair falling all over the perfect arms she’d inked with pentagrams and skulls. “I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“I’ve got an extra room,” I said, slowly, trying to appear nonchalant. “If you need a place to crash.”
She grabbed my wrist. I let out a disgraceful little moan. She didn’t seem to care or notice. Maybe everyone moaned when she touched them.
“I knew I was drawn to you for a reason,” she said.
That evening she appeared in a rusty Hyundai packed her belongings and Rasputin riding shotgun. I stood at the window and watched her unpack, aware she would only see the reflection of the yard if she were to look up. In a moment I would go out and help her, but first I wanted to stop and take note that a woman like her was entering my world.
The morning after the blob thing appeared, I put Rasputin out and left while Charles snored and Nora mumbled in her sleep. I was dazed from a dozen startled wake-ups and a seemingly endless dream in which gray blob things infested the entire house, blocking every path. Making my way across town, I looked at other drivers, wondering if any of them might be possessed by blob things, too. It seemed such entities could run the whole world, reading the news on the radio, making laws, directing capital flows, preaching, and starting wars. These were unsettling thoughts, and I was relieved to reach the crematorium, where I knew I would be alone.
When I returned that afternoon, the house was dark and empty. Rasputin was in the yard, meowing for food. The living room was cluttered with empties that had been used as ashtrays. The rooms were full of houseflies, the kitchen especially. Fast food wrappers lay on the table, covered with bits of congealed American cheese and little puddles of beef fat. I stood in the mess, trying to identify a smell I could not account for, a sharp reek of raw onions and salami, until I realized it must be Charles’s scent. It had seeped into every room, even my bedroom, and I shuddered remembering the night before, how he looked at me and said I have a body now.
I told myself I was being ridiculous, that there were no gray blob things, there was no possession, it could all chalked up to brain farts and hokum. I cleaned the common areas, trying to work off my anxiety, laughing emptily at the thought of someone being controlled by a spirit or demon or whatever you could call a see-through gray blob that came in out of the night. Nothing special had happened, I thought. Soon Charles would get bored and leave, and Nora and I would forget he’d ever been here. We would be one step closer to the future. I had finished straightening when I heard their voices outside.
They came in and stood removing muddy shoes and socks. Nora’s face and arms were covered in scratches and bug bites. She looked radiant and strong, her cheeks flushed as if she’d gone hiking. Behind her, Charles loomed up, larger and more fearsomely constructed than I recalled, his presence both intolerable and unmovable. His beard appeared to have leaf scraps in it, the factory shirt he wore for style was smeared with dirt. He looked at me, and I lowered my eyes.
Nora was happy, oblivious or indifferent to my state of mind. “We’ve been in the old growth woods, doing recon,” she said, slowly and thickly, enunciating through heavy dry mouth. “We’re planning to spike the trees. It’s time for action. The only proof of human free will at this point is our ability to counteract our species’ worst effects on the world. Time is running out, and we have to, like, choose a side.”
Feeling the gravity of Charles’s stare, I ventured a few peeks in his direction, unable to decide if he was a garden variety psycho or an actual monster. I nodded and said, “I’m on the side of the nature, that’s for sure.”
Nora put her hands on Charles’s arm, and I saw he held a small plastic bag that contained some kind of powder. “I told you we could trust him,” she said, as if trying to assuage some fear in the enormous man. “I’m going to the loo. Meet you in back?”
Charles remained where he was until after the bathroom door closed behind her. He stared at me hard, eyes glinting, as if he could read my thoughts.
“I have a body now,” he said.
Once more I had the distinct sense the blob thing was talking, and yet I had no proof. I looked for some indication of what to think. How would possession work, anyway? Was the real Charles still in there, helpless to watch while the blob thing puppeteered his body? Or did the blob thing control his perceptions, too? “Yeah,” I said weakly. “I know.”
For the first time, Charles smiled at me. Or the blob thing did. “No, you don’t.”
In the weeks that followed, a clear pattern emerged in their daily activities. They would go out in the middle of the day and buy drugs, then come home and take them over the course of the next several hours. Now and then they visited the living room to talk to me. Charles boasted of chaining himself to giant trees and sabotaging construction machines, pausing to smoke or inject or snort something, and Nora, nodding at whatever he’d just told her, would wait to take her turn. Eventually they would run out of whatever they had, pass out in Nora’s bed, sometimes after loud—and in my opinion, definitely performative—sex, and then do it all over again the following day. When they’d spent all of Nora’s money, they held a yard sale using a bunch of her stuff and a few appliances I told them I didn’t want.
I was unsurprised when Nora came into the kitchen one evening and asked me to lend her a large sum of money. I leaned against the counter and crossed my arms. I’d seen this moment coming for a long time, and I’d imagined what I would say, how she would reply, and so forth.
I explained I didn’t have the kind of money she thought she needed. She suggested various ways in which I might acquire it.
“The TV’s not good for you,” she said. “You could pawn it. You could do a cash advance on your credit card.”
I looked at her for a long moment, saying nothing. It was dark in the kitchen, but I could see the expectation that I would say yes in the corner of her smile. Up until the past few days, I knew, I would have buckled and found a way to get the money for her. But something had shifted in me. I noticed changes within myself. At work, I was different, wondering what happened to consciousness while I worked the incinerator. Not a day went by that I didn’t imagine the world mobbed with hungry, lonely ghosts. When my parents and siblings texted to say they prayed for me, I understood how religion targeted the weak.
I told Nora no, sorry, I couldn’t give her any more money.
“Why not?” she said suspiciously.
“I don’t think what’s going on is good for either of us,” I said.
She laughed in my face. She was high but sensed me hiding something. “It’s because I’m fucking Charles, isn’t it?” she said. “You’re jealous. Such an ugly little feeling.”
I shuddered, aware he was in the house. I didn’t want him to overhear us and confront me. “Don’t you think there’s something off about him?” I said quietly.
“He’s a pure soul,” she said. “What would you know about it?”
“All he does is talk,” I said. “He’s a charlatan.”
“We went tree-spiking,” she said. “That one time.”
“You just walked around in the woods,” I said. “Remember?”
She pressed her lips together and glared.
“I’m worried about you,” I said.
“Don’t be.” Her face was hard to read. “I’m part of the universe, Eddie. I can’t be destroyed. Even if this body dies, I’m part of something larger. Something you can’t see. I’ve glimpsed things you couldn’t imagine.”
This, I knew, was my opportunity. If there was anyone who would believe a blob thing was in possession of her boyfriend, it was Nora. If there was ever a time to tell her, it was now. If I convinced her, I sensed, she would see Charles in a new light. She would ask me to help her escape. We would leave this house and this city and go into the world. We would finally be together. But this future felt wrong to me, different from the one I’d imagined. In this new future, we would never settle down. Nora would lead the way, making all the big decisions. She’d never stop reminding me I’d confessed to seeing a spirit. Sooner or later, she would resume screwing other men.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I could not help trembling. On the other side of the house, Charles was moving around, shaking the floors. “I want him out.”
“If he goes,” she said. “I go.”
Rasputin crept into the kitchen and wound himself between my ankles. I gathered him up and gave him to her. Nora held him close under her chin, heaved a little sigh, and passed him back to me.
A year or so later, her sister emailed, hoping to collect whatever belongings Nora had not taken with her. The sister was going to be in the area on business and said she thought it best to kill two birds with one rock. I accepted readily, and we arranged a time for her to come by. I was eager to learn more about Nora’s past, though I worried she would want Rasputin.
Nora’s sister bore a slight resemblance to her. There were family themes, the nose and teeth and eye and hair color, but this woman looked more harried and uptight than Nora ever had, both less impressive and more relatable, more down to earth and mortal, a kind of woman who never looked at me twice, a kind of woman for whom I felt no desire. When she introduced herself, I thought I saw a glimmer of recognition in her sad smile, as if she could tell what I’d gone through just by seeing my face.
I’d put Nora’s belongings in the living room. She hadn’t left much, and before long her sister and I had loaded everything into the rented SUV. Nora’s sister stood in the driveway a while, talking to me. She glanced down the road eagerly but went on saying things, wanting me to understand something about herself and her family. She had a conventional upper middle class life, a husband and a couple of kids and a Great Dane. She had a career and passions for Asian cuisine, international travel, gardening. Her sister, she said, was the odd one.
Having said this, she began to cry.
“She was very difficult,” she said. “But she wasn’t always trash. The truth is she was very special. She could have been anything.”
“I know,” I said. I was choking up, too. I held Rasputin in my arms. We had agreed I should keep him, that this would be easiest for everybody. She reached out and scratched the cat behind the ears.
“It’s his fault she’s dead, you know,” she said. “The son of a bitch.”
“I know,” I said. I did not say I’d driven to the motel where a housekeeper had found their bodies, disregarding the privacy sign when the odor grew too strong. A desolate string of rooms off the freeway, the place looked foreboding and shabby. Nora and Charles had been living there for a while, the manager said. She didn’t say how they’d paid for their room. She didn’t need to. Lot of couples like that around, she said flatly.
“She mentioned you took her in,” Nora’s sister said. “I’m grateful.”
“I wish I’d done more,” I said, aware I’d allowed her to form a false impression of me. But there was something I wished for her to know, a thing I’d never told anyone, something I felt vulnerable about, maybe the only real secret I’d ever had. My wanting to tell her had nothing to do who she was. I thought Nora would want her to know. “I wish I—”
She put her hand on my shoulder and looked at me with a strange urgency. “I’m sure you did everything you could have. I’m sure you said and did every possible thing.”
“But,” I said, “I—”
She blinked and said, “Every. Thing. Please don’t say any more.”
She climbed into the vehicle and waved behind the glass. I watched her drive away, thinking of what I had not told her and wondering for the first time how many more times I would think of it. Because I had been thinking of it less and less frequently in those days, because I had begun thinking of other things. In a way, the thing I had wanted to tell her had freed me to think of other things. And time was moving forward, naturally. My life was taking on a new shape. Because you only lived for so long, and you never really knew all the possibilities, and by the time you understood that, you were too far along to waste time on regrets.
What I’d wanted to tell her was how I’d first understood Nora was dead, which I’d known before it was ever in the newspaper, or before a police detective came by to confirm that this was the house where she had lived for a time, and that the dead man found with her had stayed there, too. I wanted to tell her how I’d come home from work and found the rooms in their typically ordered emptiness, and how I felt the sad vacancy left by Nora, even though many weeks had passed by then. How I missed the sound of Nora’s laughter and the crazy things she said and the smell of the lavender oil she wore, and how in that unbearable silence I sought the company of the cat she’d left and how, reaching with my mind into the empty corners of every room, I went to the kitchen door to call him in. I wanted to tell Nora’s sister how the cat was waiting at the bottom of the steps, as usual, looking up as if waiting for me to acknowledge him, and how in that instant I’d felt a familiar rushing sensation pass through my body, a tremendous pressure that filled my chest and ears before releasing its hold on them, how my vision blurred and darkened briefly and how, when I could see again, a familiar dark shape rushed out ahead of me, a gray not quite material thing that streaked across the yard, over the trees, and into the bright and cloudless afternoon sky, growing smaller and smaller until it vanished.
Hugh Sheehy is the author of the story collection Design Flaw, forthcoming from Acre Books in November. His previous collection, The Invisibles, won the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award and is published by University of Georgia Press. His stories have appeared in a number of journals, most recently Fence, West Branch, and Story. He teaches Creative Writing at Ramapo College in New Jersey.Grayscale Photography of Mud by Adrien Converse