What They Know
The demons are outside the window. It’s hard to make out their faces behind the lamp’s yellow reflection, but I know they’re looking. They always watch first. Waiting for something, some sign of welcome, or out of a sense of propriety only they understand. I’m in bed holding a cigarette. I roll it and savor the spongy surrender of the filter, the subtle texture of dry tobacco beneath the paper. I haven’t smoked in over a year—almost sixteen months—but I keep a pack in the drawer of the bedside table. When I need to, I take one out, tap it against the tabletop to pack the tobacco, feel the weight of it: light and easily broken.
Count to ten. Breathe.
They push one pane open and climb in, black claws clacking against the frame. There are three of them, the size of house cats. Chalky, pale skin clings to their ribs and spines. A breeze comes in behind them, and it smells like the coast at nighttime, the ocean—salty, cold. One starts to tap along the wall, and soon all three are tapping: the wall, the bookshelf, the chest of drawers, as if looking for some hollow place. All this noise, I’m worried it will wake Anya, sleeping in her crib in the next room. Most nights, the demons disappear into the house. They carry on as if they have business to take care of, ignoring Anya and me and the questions I always ask. I go into the nursery and fall asleep on her floor, door locked, and in the morning, some obscure thing in the house is damaged—symbols scratched into Carrie’s clarinet, pages ripped from our photo albums—and the demons are gone.
They’ve been coming for weeks. Always at the same time. Always with the same solemn sense of purpose. The routine is almost comforting.
The demons are still tapping when I turn off the lamp. When the room goes dark, the sounds stop, and three pairs of silver circles follow me as I slip out of bed. In the nursery, I lock the door and stuff a blanket under the bottom. The window is closed and locked.
Anya sleeps noiselessly. I crouch beside her crib and watch her belly balloon and deflate. Even after five months, she doesn’t seem quite alive—this new, living thing that a year ago existed only as a part of her mother, like a lung. I flick the mobile, and it spins its menagerie above her: soft cloth effigies of clownfish, pink squid, seahorse, tiger shark. Fabric cut into living shapes and tied with yarn to the strings of a broken wind chime. Carrie made it the afternoon we were told we couldn’t get pregnant. It was her talisman, her fertility charm. We had been trying for three years. When the mobile was finished, she hung it above our headboard and stared at it with her knees to her chest after we made love.
I roll up an extra blanket to use as a pillow and lie on the floor beside the crib, listening to her breathing and the muted sounds of claws against the plaster. They’ve never tried to touch Anya, but books have gone missing from her shelf in the nursery. Once, I found a plastic doll floating in the bathroom sink, its eyes plucked out. I stare at the locked door until I can’t anymore, and all the sounds seem to fade.
Coffee and baby powder. I smell coffee and baby powder. At first, I’m thinking Carrie made the coffee, and it’s going to be weak because she drinks tea. She brews coffee just for me when she makes breakfast on the weekends. And then I have to remember, again, that Carrie isn’t here. Carrie hasn’t made coffee in a long time.
Something thuds beside me and Anya starts to fuss. When I open my eyes, one of the demons is next to my face, crumpled like a scrap of dirty white leather. I feel embarrassed. I think: How could someone be afraid of this? Its skeletal body looks small and brittle, harmless. Then I think: Why is it still here? Then: Why isn’t it moving? Anya squirms in her crib. She grabs at the air, clutching my shoulder as I pick her up. Bouncing her lightly, I nudge the demon with my toe, and it slumps over, sprawling. The gill-like flaps on its neck don’t move in their normal rhythm—they aren’t moving at all. And maybe that’s why it isn’t gone. At some point in the night, it must have died. A demon corpse, on the floor of my daughter’s nursery. I think: What am I going to do with it? I think: Shoe box. Garbage bag. The copse of ragged bushes behind the parking lot. A shovel.
Anya whimpers hoarsely. Or, I think it’s Anya, until the body starts to twitch. It moans: a low-pitched, cracked sound. A shoulder snaps into place, then the neck. The left elbow untwists; the skinny tail unkinks. It sits up and shakes its head, licks a wound on its hand with its black forked tongue. Then it climbs the barred wall of the crib, too close to me and my daughter and the blue sheets still warm from her sleep. It lifts one finger, pointing. It’s looking at me—those deep black orbs look right into me. Something changes in the position of its flat mouth. An approximation of a smile. With the pointed finger, it taps one end of the mobile, and the fish begin to spin. Anya laughs and reaches for the whirling colors. The demon hops from the railing. Landing on its feet, it stretches its arms above its head and yawns, leaving the room through the wide open door.
In the kitchen, one of them is squatting beside a vase of plastic geraniums on the dining table. Coffee steams in a mug nearby. The mug has a picture of a frazzled cartoon robot on it, under the words I Hate Mondays. I don’t remember owning a mug like that. It might have been packed away in the crawlspace, in one of Carrie’s boxes. I don’t even know what I have—I have no way of knowing what they’re taking from me. Black coffee grounds are boiling in a soup pot on the stove, the Mr. Coffee unplugged and cold on the counter. The demon is scratching symbols into the tabletop—the same symbols that are etched deep into the shower tiles and the footboard of our bed. As it finishes each letter, it places both hands on the surface of the table and blows the excess dust from the grooves.
“Stop that,” I tell it.
Anya gums my shirt and reaches for my face. Her hands are clammy on my stubbled chin. I know she’s hungry. I have to feed her. Whether or not there are demons in my house, I have to feed her.
The demon turns and stares at me. Its gills flare as it breathes.
“Go home,” I say. “You’re not supposed to be here.” I take Anya’s bottle from the fridge. “Today isn’t a good day. My mother-in-law is coming. We’re going to the zoo.”
As if Anya could tell the difference between a peacock and a polar bear. She’ll sleep through the Savannah and the Rainforest while Colleen asks me how often I’ve been feeding her, asks me if I’ve looked at any of the daycares she’s called, asks me when I’m going back to work. In the aquarium, I will tell her that I need to use the restroom, hand the stroller over, and lose myself in the dark blue maze of tanks. Jellyfish will pulse purple neon. Tiger rays will ripple in their sandbanks. I will run my hand, as always, over the warm surface of the sea turtle tank. On our honeymoon, Carrie insisted on snorkeling the reef. Neither of us had snorkeled before. It was only the third time I’d seen the ocean. Twenty minutes into the dive, a piece of coral cut her leg, nicking an artery. All the blood, stretching out around us in the blue water, I worried about sharks or her bleeding to death. She was rushed to a hospital on the big island. It was the infection that almost killed her. Two weeks in intensive care. Lucky to survive, the doctors said. On the flight home, she told me she’d had a dream in her delirium that she’d grown fins on her ankles. She was swimming so deep in the black, volcanic ocean, she thought she’d never surface.
The microwave dings. I cradle Anya in my left arm and fix the bottle to her groping mouth. There are dim sounds from the living room—the TV is on. I hear bird calls, a man’s voice narrating.
The demon continues scratching. I prop Anya’s bottle against my chest and pour coffee into a mug. A film of grinds floats on top.
“I don’t really want to go. It’s my mother-in-law. She thinks animals are therapy.” I place my mug on the table near the demon’s. “What are you still doing here?”
Like always, it doesn’t answer. This time, it doesn’t even bother to look at me.
“What are you drawing?” I say. “Hey,you’re fucking up my table. Our table.”
Anya fidgets. She can feel my muscles tightening, my heartbeat quickening. I take a breath and count to ten like I’ve been told to. The demon shrugs and slinks to the floor. Before leaving the kitchen, it turns off the stove.
Anya and I are alone, the demons someplace I can’t see them. In sight, they don’t seem dangerous. But in other corners of the house, quiet like this, they could be up to anything. It’s morning, and they’re still here. They broke the routine.
The phone rings.
“I’ll be there in an hour,” Colleen tells me. “Dress Anya warm. It’s supposed to cool off today. Put that pink hat on her, the one I got her last week.”
“Colleen,” I say. “There are demons in my house.”
This is the first time I’ve said it aloud. There’s a pause.
“What color are they?”
“I don’t know. White? Kind of sickly-looking.”
“Are they doing anything? Building any kind of altars or teepees?”
“No,” I answer. “Just writing.”
“My friend Nancy had those. A whole nest. After her son left for the service.” A pause. “Are you keeping them out of Anya’s room?”
“How did she get rid of them? Your friend.”
“She died,” says Colleen. “I’ll be there in an hour. Dress Anya warm.”
There are new symbols gouged into the coffee table. The remote controls are stacked on top of one another, but the demons aren’t anywhere I can see them. I settle onto the couch with Anya, and we hold that tableau for a while: Father and daughter, watching TV. It feels almost normal. On the TV, a handful of Japanese giant hornets are infiltrating a hive of honeybees, and in less than five minutes, all three hundred bees are shriveled and dead. Anya empties the bottle and drifts back to sleep. She snores, which makes me nervous. A sable antelope pierces the chest of an attacking lion, wracking its horns to free itself from the flailing claws of the lioness. I don’t know which infant snores are normal, which ones mean Anya can’t breathe. I try holding her at different angles, though I know, with the furnace on, the air has been dry and she probably just has mucus in her nose. More animals attack. More die. When I hear Colleen’s keys in the lock, we’re still in our pajamas.
Colleen looks at us, then begins to straighten the framed photos, to fluff the throw pillows. “I told you I’d be here,” she says. “Why isn’t she dressed?”
“I was having coffee. Anya needed her bottle.”
She looks around the living room. “Where are they?”
“The things. The demons.”
“I haven’t seen them since you called. Maybe the bedroom.”
Alarmed, she disappears into the hallway and returns a moment later. “I don’t see anything. No twigs, no blood.” She surveys the living room again. “Nancy said they tracked blood everywhere. All over her white carpet.”
“I haven’t seen any blood.”
“Why is Anya snoring? Are you holding her right?”
“I’m holding her right, Colleen. I know how to hold her.”
“Of course you do,” she says, placing the remote controls in a neat row. “What do I know? I only raised four children.”
“There’s coffee on the stove,” I offer. “One of them made it. It’s in a saucepan.” I start to stand. Colleen holds out a hand to stop me.
“I’ll get it, don’t worry,” she says. “Hold her up higher. Rub her neck a little.”
Colleen shuffles into the kitchen. Cabinets open and close, the silverware drawer rattles. The man on the TV is still saying something about animals. I lift Anya to my shoulder and rub her neck. Her snoring stops. I listen for tapping or a shriek from Colleen, but all I hear is the narrator. I close my eyes and count to ten. When Colleen returns with two mugs, I thank her and take a sip. She’s strained the grinds and added sugar, which I don’t like. I drink anyway, politely, exaggerating an mmm in gratitude.
“What’s on the table in there?”
“I don’t know. Graffiti. A grocery list.”
“You can’t let them do that. Next thing you know, they’ll be doing séances under your bed.”
“Who knows what they do,” she says. “Are you watching this?” She turns the channel before I can reply, then sits forward in the recliner with her mug in both hands. These weekend visits—she drives two hours each way. She plans trips to the zoo, the frozen yogurt shop, the park. She pays for everything. I’m still on—paternity leave, they’re calling it.
“I said, what are you going to do?” she’s saying.
“They’ll take your daughter away,” she says. “Is that what you want?”
She finishes her coffee in one long sip.
“I’m her father.” And I’m suddenly aware of my daughter’s weight in my arms. I hold her closer. Count to ten. “No one is taking her anywhere.”
“I’m trying to help you. But they’ll bring her to live with me if there are still worries. Should we be worried?”
“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “I’m going to get dressed.”
“You can leave Anya here,” Colleen says. “I’m just going to clean up a bit.”
“Don’t clean anything. Get some coffee. We’ll be back in a minute. Everything’s fine.”
My sheets are shredded. Clothes are in piles on the floor. Carrie’s sweaters, skirts, her black party dress—all the things I kept—lie twisted with my suit jackets and jeans. Her picture is face down on the bedside table.
I push the pillows together and lay Anya between them. Her legs kick a little, but she stays asleep. I change into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, both from the floor. The rest of the clothes I toss on top of the shoes in the closet. Careful not to wake the baby, I check the sheets for signs of blood. As the shreds of sheets unravel, a demon rolls out from under the bed. It yawns and blinks, then crawls up to the photo of Carrie, setting the frame upright and tilting its head as if to apologize. A diagonal crack runs across the glass, and there are scratches on each side of the frame. With both hands, the demon drags the frame across the bed and places it on the pillow beside Anya. Then it pushes some of the shredded strips of linen into a loose nest, curls up next to her feet, yawns, and closes its eyes.
I sit on the bed next to them, watching each body breathe. Anya, belly inflating and sinking. The demon, frayed gills fanning and flattening.
“You’ve made a mess of everything,” I say. “I don’t know how to do any of this. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
The demon and Anya are both asleep. The only face looking at me is Carrie’s. The closet doors creak open, and the other two demons skulk into the room. One has my wife’s gold bracelet around its neck. Both blink at me, mouths set in guilty frowns.
“What the fuck am I supposed to do?”
“You’re not helping.”
The one with the bracelet skitters up to me. It lifts the thin gold chain over its head and offers it to me. I slip it into the drawer of the nightstand and notice the pack of cigarettes. In that moment, I want to hold one between my fingers. I want the smell of it, the habit. Something familiar. When I open the box, the cigarettes are missing. In their place are small seashells, bleached and cracked and sandy. The demon’s lips pull back to show a row of dull black teeth. It nods. The scene has the feeling of a ceremony. I smell their bodies and Anya’s. Salt and sour milk. The room is quiet, reverent.
“I’m sorry,” I say. And I am. When I lift it by its neck, it doesn’t squirm or thrash. Its gills flutter against my palm, skin dry and rubbery. It’s still smiling. The small body is so light I imagine its bones are hollow like a bird’s. The demon purrs, or clears its throat. With my thumb and forefinger, I snap its neck easily. Head falls limply to one side. Gills flag in their rhythm.
I lay it out on the bed next to the sleeping demon and pick up the other one from the closet, breaking its neck the same way as the first. Neither bleeds. The scratched frame I place back on the table where it belongs. Already the first demon’s vertebrae are snapping back into place. This is what it knows about death. It hasn’t learned it’s not supposed to get back up.
When I touch the gills on the sleeping demon’s neck, it moves its shoulders as if shrugging off a bad dream. Its skin is cold and dry like the others. I shake it awake. Black eyes fix on the two bodies of its brothers. It shakes its head, disappointed.
“I had to,” I tell it. I stand and lift Anya, who’s starting to whimper but isn’t quite awake. The demon crawls to the others, outlines a symbol on the chest of one of them. As it does this, the necks I’ve broken are already snapping back into place. “Don’t take anything. Please. Don’t build a nest or anything in here. We don’t need it. We’re fine.”
Colleen is Windexing the TV. The Bible channel is on now, muted. Colleen circles her paper towel over the faces of a white-suited preacher and a woman in a wheelchair with her arms raised to heaven. Anya wakes as I strap her into her swing. She reaches for Colleen. I hand her a rubber toy whale, and she stuffs the tail in her mouth.
“Did you find them? What happened?”
“Nothing,” I say. “I just couldn’t find my shoes.”
Colleen sprays cleaner on the TV. Anya coughs.
“You don’t need to do that.”
“It’s okay. It’ll only take a sec.”
“Colleen.” My jaw stiffens. I try to count to ten. I only make it to three. “Colleen, right now, drop the fucking Windex.”
She freezes mid-wipe, eyes wide. “I’m sorry,” she says, looking for someplace to set the bottle. “You know I just want to make sure everything is okay. I don’t want you to have to worry about anything.”
She means this, I know. She rocked and fed Anya when I couldn’t. She sold the rest of Carrie’s things. She reassured the social workers, took care of all the paperwork. Whenever I failed, Colleen was there to make sure things got done, until she was doing everything I should have been.
She looks at me expectantly. She wants to see that I feel something.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’ll get Anya’s hat.”
She manages a smile. “The pink one. It’s the warmest.”
Anya’s hat is next to her coat and mittens on the changing table. Above the crib, the mobile is spinning. I stop for a moment and watch the fish move in their circle.
Down the hall, I look inside the bedroom. The bodies are gone. The bed is stripped, and fresh sheets are folded in a stack at the end of the bed. The closet door is closed.
And then I see them. They’re outside the window. Six black eyes, mouths neutral, showing no teeth. I sit on the bed and watch them for a while until, one by one, they crawl away. When I lock the window, I don’t see anything on the side of the building. No pale shapes moving through the parking lot below. The wind smells of car exhaust and autumn leaves.
Colleen is in the kitchen washing the saucepan and the used mugs. She sets all three mugs on a towel to dry, propping the pot against them. Anya is in her high chair with the whale. Spittle hangs between its mouth and hers like a tightrope.
I kiss her forehead. “I love you, baby girl.”
On the table, the demon’s symbols look like caveman carvings, a museum display. I trace the rough edges with my finger. Maybe, I think, it’s a verse from some unholy script or lines from a demon love song. Then I think maybe it’s a message. Maybe it’s telling me the reason they were here. A good-bye.
“Grow up to be a deep sea diver,” I whisper to Anya. “In one of those big Martian-looking suits. Go see whatever there is to see.”
I take the coffee jar from the cupboard and scoop some into the filter of the Mr. Coffee.
“Don’t worry,” says Colleen. “They’re not in here. I checked.”
“We can get a new table. On the way home.” She unplugs the drain and dries her hands. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I tell her. “We’re okay.”
I pull the hat over Anya’s head. Its flaps cover her ears, and little braids of pink yarn drape onto her shoulders. She drops the whale and pulls on one of the braids, and the hat twists, its wool flap covering one of her eyes, the other sparkling and blue and looking right at me.