by: Eli Ryder
All Sara could remember about rock bottom was hopelessness, begging, and the rough smell of burnt hazelnut mixed with an unidentifiable herbaceous funk. She sprawled on the floor and locked eyes on the dirty hypodermic needle that lay six inches from her nose. If the floor sways just right, she thought, it’ll leap right into my eye. Then she slept.
Sara laid behind the dumpster in the snow, crumpled and hollow, for so long that the cold left her stiff and slow. Not numb, though. She had hoped that the burn would turn to sore and the cold would drain whatever was left, but numb didn’t come.
Standing wasn’t good. Walking wasn’t better, but making sure she stayed upright distracted her from the pain. She could still feel him over either shoulder, a shadow just out of reach. He was a blur at the edge of her vision, and then he was gone. His voice echoed in her, deep and harsh, and she could smell rock bottom on her clothes. His smell.
She was still drunk. She stumbled, regained, and spilled out into the yellow light on the sidewalk. She felt the sideways burn of onlookers.
It was just a half-mile shuffle up the boulevard past sidewalk diners to the rough end where the storefronts were barricaded with rolling steel gates.
She stuck her key into a battered door between two of the gates, opened it. Inside, she flipped a switch and a sterile fluorescent buzzed on. The carpeted stairs swayed in front of her, and she braced herself on the brass mailboxes that lined the wall.
She lifted a foot onto the first step, and pain flared white. Each push to the next step torched higher, and halfway up the stairs she realized she was screaming.
Right about now, numb, she thought. Any time, numb. I’m waiting.
In the hall at the top of the stairs, she dodged sleeping addicts curled in front of locked doors, banging her shoulders against the walls. She started to feel shadows creep in at the corners of her eyes and pinched her forearm. The shadows shot back behind her, and she found her door.
Inside, she left a trail of purse and keys and torn skirt and shredded nylons, bra and top and heels, leading to the bathroom, where she slid into the cold tub and curled her hands under her cheek.
Nicky had already spun the lid off the bleach when Sara slid into the kitchen. She snatched the bottle away, splashing a little on his face. Instinctively, he slapped the wet spot with a clumsy hand and spattered it around—his clothes, his eye, his lips—and then sucked in a belly full of air, shooting the bleach into the back of his throat.
Sara had time to wonder if skin stained and corroded the way his clothes would, and then Nicky was choking, gagging, screaming. She ripped him up off the floor and shoved his face under the faucet. Hold his eye open, don’t drop him, he’s squirming—
Nicky whipped his head away from the faucet, cracking against the divide between the basins. Sara gasped and went cold—what the fuck did I just do—and then he screamed again, eyes shut tight. She propped his eye open, praying the deep red there would rinse away.
Nicky threw up thick bile, choked, and kept screaming.
In the emergency room, waiting patients split their attention between their injuries and her tattered son. She held him tight to her chest, silently begging Nicky to forgive her, but the other patients’ glances burned fiery holes in her, rekindling her guilt. Nicky was close to nodding off, but the lump on his head from bashing against the sink was huge and she didn’t want to let him sleep. Every time she woke him, his screaming renewed and her heart broke a little more.
Nicky’s nurse had only just taken him when Sara heard a cold voice behind her. “You really should have latched all the cabinets.” A woman in a severe suit looked down at her from behind a clipboard.
“I have child latches on the cabinets. A baby gate, latches, and supposedly a childproof cap on the bleach.”
“And you took your eyes off him, left him alone because you ‘knew’ he was going to be fine?”
“No! I left him—”
“Left him. I have that part.”
“Goddamn, let me finish. I left him asleep in his playpen—the walls are higher than he is tall—and I went to the bathroom. That’s all. I came out and heard the cabinet door shut and he already had the damned bottle.”
“Fuck you. I’m doing this by myself, what the fuck do you know about it? Working,
taking care of a kid? Alone. It’s a miracle we have what we do—in the beginning, I had nothing, and now we’re good, we’re doing good. I own my place, I’m not taking handouts. I’m working—I run my department, I’m fucking working.” Sara’s voice echoed through triage. A few people stared.
“First, stop shouting. Not great for your ‘I’ve got it all together’ argument. Second, I’m just going to file the report. I don’t make decisions, your yelling at me will get you nowhere at all.” She paused. “It just goes in my report.”
Sara swallowed the threat and said nothing. Severe Suit stared her down a moment longer and then left. Sara put her head in her hands, trying not to cry through the stillness of the moment.
Mrs. Nolan was a pleasant woman, always sweet on the phone, but Sara still couldn’t help sneering when she spoke. Something about her thick voice, like cloying honey, stuck weird in her ears. Sara’s mother would have said that voice raised her hackles, which Sara always thought was funny, picturing hackles like porcupine quills on the back of her neck that stabbed straight out when raised.
She felt the back of her neck, rubbed a little, making sure nothing spiked out.
Mrs. Nolan flipped another drawing to the top of the stack. “There’s this one too, which doesn’t seem so terribly bad, but in conjunction with the others—”
“There’s a theme, you’re saying.”
“Yes, a theme. And maybe not one that we should be concerned about, but we tend to notice patterns in these kinds of things.”
“Yes.” Sara flipped through the drawings. Each was a crude landscape, drawn in Nicky’s clumsy crayon hand. A set of rolling fields, corn rows, mountains, a beach, each scribbled darkly and barely recognizable. In the top corner of each, a waxy black sun, and directly under the sun, standing on whatever surface the landscape afforded, a black goat. It would have been indiscernible from a dog or cat, or bear for that matter, except Nicky had spiked two horns and a goatee on the heads in each drawing. Sara smiled—it really was just a stick figure, each stick scratched repeatedly into black grooves in the paper. But the horns, the goatee, they were delicate. Shaky, still, but delicate and precise. As though Nicky had been afraid to take as little care with them as he had the rest of the animal.
“At his age,” Mrs. Nolan said, “we normally see pictures like this, with family and pets. Very common actually, especially if the child is troubled about something.”
Sara felt a tug of sadness. She remembered her mother proudly displaying her crayon drawings of family on the refrigerator, remembered painstakingly drawing each yellow strand of hair in her clumsy hand and then convincing herself she had gotten it right. Why wasn’t Nicky drawing her? She made a mental note to plan some time off. She’d been busy with work, maybe too busy, she thought. They needed some family time, just the two of them.
“He’s fine. And we don’t have a goat.”
“No, of course not. I just wanted to bring them to your attention.”
Sara looked up and couldn’t see anything but real concern on Mrs. Nolan’s face. She stacked the drawings together and stood up, trying to shake the feeling that her hackles had spread like wings. “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll have a talk with him.”
Mrs. Nolan smiled. “If you feel that’s necessary. He’s a bright young man, sensitive too, and his acting out has calmed considerably.” Sara saw the concern flash into judgment for a moment, then return. “Not entirely gone, but we never expect perfection, do we?”
She’d been trying, and despite her territorial instinct that begged for her to punch Mrs. Nolan in the throat for pushing her nose where Sara thought it didn’t belong, she was grateful that her efforts were recognized. Happier still that Nicky might learn to get along.
“Thanks again.” Sara turned and left, not slowing when she passed Nicky in the hall and grabbed his hand. “Let’s go, kid. You. Me. Ice cream. And tell me about the goat.”
At home that night, Sara stood in the doorway of Nicky’s room and watched him sleep. His nightlight cast star patterns on the walls and ceiling. Sara never could figure out how the slow rotation of their positions didn’t make Nicky sick. He lay still, sucking on the neckband of his pajamas, the stars revolving around him.
Sara smiled at the image, but thought he might do better with others if he didn’t think of the world as revolving around him. She reminded herself to have her assistant replace the nightlight with something less astral. Maybe a yellow sun just plugged into the wall, something that didn’t move, something that didn’t so obviously indicate that he was the center of the universe. He was the center of hers, though, and she dismissed replacing the nightlight entirely.
“His name is Billy,” he’d said in the car. “Billy is my goat-friend and he’s been to all those places.”
“How do you know him?”
“He tells me about all those places, about the people there—but I can’t draw the people, just Billy and the places.” He split his attention between her and the world blurring by outside the window.
Hackles again. “How do you know him, honey? Why can’t you draw the people?”
Nicky smiled at the window, and Sara thought the conversation was over. Her back stuck to the leather, the heated seats suddenly overdoing their job. She thumbed the off button and flicked a finger across the car’s touchscreen radio controls, finding Nicky’s favorite Pandora station, and braced herself against the onslaught of Disney-themed Christmas songs. Sara watched him in the rearview, bobbing his head and conducting. She started listing in her head the night’s tasks, and then the next day’s, a habit she’d gotten into when she’d been given her first executive position.
She added bedtime stories to the list. He was sweetest then, when he was curled up and listening to her Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears voices.
“Because they’re in the hole, Mommy. Billy keeps them in the hole.” Nicky was still looking out the window, his voice barely hovering above the saccharine bounce of Disney tunes.
“The people are in the hole?” It was an odd thing to say.
“The bad people.”
“Where are the good people?” she asked.
“What good people, Mommy?”
Sara’s eyes snapped open and Nicky was standing at the foot of her bed. Her clock’s red LED display shone on his face, his flat expression glowing fire in the dark.
“Jesus, Nicky, what’s wrong? You scared me.”
Nicky just stared, his breathing regular and smooth. Not a nightmare, Sara thought, not a bad dream.
“Do you need something? Water? Feeling okay? What time is it, honey?” She glanced at the clock. 2:59 a.m. Far below, the sparse sounds of the devil’s hour on city streets—the rare horn blaring, a siren or two—gave the only indication that anywhere outside the bedroom actually existed. She could scream and no one would hear, she thought. She shuddered.
Nicky didn’t answer, just stared, and Sara was smacked by a rush of cold. A puff of condensed breath shot out of his nose and he blinked. Sara looked down, saw that her breast had spilled out of her nightgown—so cold, if that nipple gets any harder it’ll break, she thought—and felt his eyes there. She covered herself in a flash. The air warmed, she couldn’t see his breath anymore, and he turned away. Nicky backed away from the foot of her bed, still blank, still staring. He turned away, and the clock’s red glow flared on his profile.
He was naked. He still had a child’s belly, but his shoulders and arms were the sculpted thin that hinted at impending adult dexterity. He was going to be strong, she thought, and then saw his erection. Impossibly large for an eight-year-old, and she thought she saw a gleam of pre-ejaculate jeweled at the tip. Her breath caught and she shivered, praying he wouldn’t notice and turn back to her.
His bare feet clomped on the teak floor in the hallway. He shut the door to his room behind him.
Nicky stared out the window and Sara watched him, punctuating her phone conversation with questions he didn’t answer. The back of the limousine was wide enough that Sara could barely reach across the seat to touch his scraped knuckles, but she tried anyway. He moved, the smallest twitch of avoidance, such that he was just out of reach. She hung up the phone, counted to ten and reminded herself that personal time was part of what a CEO gave to her company, and turned to Nicky again.
“Honey, you can’t keep avoiding this. There aren’t any more schools we can send you to.”
Nicky didn’t answer.
Sara tried to make a note in her phone to book a vacation, just the two of them, but it rang again. Nicky looked at her and rolled his eyes, sinking his thin frame farther into the soft leather.
That’s something at least, Sara thought, something better than silence and a complete lack of acknowledgment. At least he noticed she was there.
They turned into the massive driveway that half circled the front of the estate. She gasped and dropped her phone.
Red and blue lights swirling from the emergency responders splashed over everything. They scrambled to put out the fire. Her hedges and the stone wall circling the property had kept the flames hidden, and the night sky obscured the smoke, but there was no hiding the blaze once inside the perimeter. The entire front of the sprawling colonial house was engulfed.
Sara looked at Nicky. His eyes glowed orange.
Millie sat on the floor, hands covering her face, but she was unable to keep from dripping blood all around her. Sara stood frozen, unable to process what she had just seen—Nicky smashing his nanny in the face with Sara’s empty San Pellegrino bottle—and instead wondered how much the hotel would charge for getting blood out of the carpet.
Nicky’s shoulders jumped up and down, his hands were folded over his belly, and he barked and snorted deliriously. In a moment, he was doubled over with it, then down on the floor, rolling back and forth. Millie’s whimpers of pain ramped into growls of anger, and Nicky laughed harder. Millie stood, raging through her clenched jaw. She wiped her hands on her jeans and locked eyes with Sara.
“Fuck him, and fuck you,” Millie said, nose still bleeding. She snatched a towel from the bathroom and slammed the door behind her.
Sara looked down at him, then at the blood spattered on the plush floor, then back at Nicky. Still laughing, he took off his shirt. He dipped his fingers in the blood spangled around him and drew the familiar scribbled goat in blood on his chest. Nicky looked down at himself and chuckled.
Sara stared at him, searching, and eventually had to look away, unable to find a remnant of the child she loved in the unknowable monster in front of her.
For the fifth night in a row, Sara closed her eyes and saw that bloody smear on Nicky’s chest behind her eyelids. Sleep might come, she thought, but that’s what I’ll see there.
Since the Millie incident, her dreams had been vivid and disturbing, but explainable. She watched her son smash his nanny in the face with a liter-sized glass bottle, and then draw with the blood. Perfectly understandable that she carried that around for a while, she thought. It had all but obliterated any of the positive memories that Sara clung desperately to. Those small moments when Nicky hugged back, when he looked her in the eye and smiled, when he expressed joy in her presence—at her presence—happened, they were real, but they had become ghosts just behind the terror and frustration that a violent child engenders.
The last few nights, though, her dreams were becoming darker. There was the smear, the glass, Millie’s curse on her way out—each dream it was something different. Most recently, Millie just spat in her face and hissed, but something else was creeping into the corners, becoming more and more tangible every night. Nicky had been especially difficult the last few weeks, scrawling black scribbles on every surface in his room, destroying everything that could be destroyed, and then sleeping in a hollow scooped into the wreckage.
She was locking Nicky in his room now. She was surprised at first that he didn’t protest, but these days she was grateful for any respite from the constant battle that sharing his space had become. She tried to tell herself that she was doing the right thing to protect Nicky from himself, even tried justifying locking him in as protection against the furniture that she just had her assistant order, but the weight of failure bore down on her and she couldn’t deny that locking him in his room was also a way for her to avoid dealing with the problem. If she didn’t have to fight with him, if she didn’t have to worry about his breaking bones on the furniture—if she didn’t have to look at him and see everything she thought she should have done better for him shining in his face—then she’d be fine. She was going to be fine.
Except for the dreams. She was cold again, hollow, and trying to stuff that ancient memory back into the hole from which it came, but every night the cold grew stronger, the hollow in her bigger. She barely slept at night, barely noticed the sterility of the empty rooms in the new house that they hadn’t yet filled, barely noticed the thick animal smell coming from Nicky’s room. In a daze, she submitted her Leave of Absence to the board and didn’t even register their surprise. She was already halfway home when they called to grant their approval, and she let it go to voicemail. There was nothing else in the world beyond exhaustion and the shadows that crept in when she slept, the shadows that whispered Nicky’s name.
Sleep did come, though. It was shallow, and she couldn’t tell whether she was asleep or not. There was just snow, and pain, and the whipping smack of gleefully administered beatings. She couldn’t see, but she heard the clomp of hooves and the snort of dead breath, and screams—so many screams—and the weight of shattered parents trying to piece themselves together after having their souls ripped away drilling right into her. She couldn’t breathe. The taste of spoiled meat and unwashed fur filled her mouth, she choked on it, and shot upright in bed.
Breathing in wasn’t good. Expelling wasn’t any better, but she had to empty her lungs. She choked out bristled hair in tufts and spat out sour saliva. She heaved in and out, begging the burn to fade to sore and then to numb. And then she heard him.
“Hello again.” His voice, deep and harsh, ground through her ears. He sounded like he was pulling his voice from the deepest parts of her bowels, where what she’d eaten bound itself up and refused to be voided, rotting and corrupting instead. “You’ve done well,” he said.
He was seated on the edge of her bed, his black suit blending into the dark so that his face seemed to float on the thick fear she was sweating out. He looked the same: angularly handsome, sharp features just barely inhuman enough to still be called exotic. He smiled, not showing teeth, and something tore inside her.
“You,” was all she could manage.
“Yes, me. Well, me and.” He glanced over his shoulder, daring her to look. She could only make out a silhouette: horns and titan-wide shoulders, wiry shags of fur, thick hooves. She closed her eyes before she could see more.
“It’s time,” he said.
Sara let confusion crowd fear out for a moment. “Time?”
“Our bargain, Sara.” His thin smile didn’t waver, but Sara felt his patience wane. It was like holding ice, cold but present, then gone.
“You already made good on your end. I’m doing fine, we’re doing fine, I’ve got everything I need for as long as we’ll need it. I don’t need you anymore.” She started to cry toward the end, her voice shaking.
He laughed. “Sara, you sweet dumb girl. You owe. Not me.”
“What? But the alley—I let you—I paid, I paid you!”
“You offered your body, yes.”
“That was the deal!” Sara’s fear was taking over again, tinged with anger. “That was the deal.”
“Yes, it was. And we used your body. In the moment, that was for me.” He giggled. “For funsies. But what came after, that was for him.”
The silhouette emerged from the shadows. He was ancient, his beard thin wisps of brittle hair that kinked away from his chin. His eyes were clouded, his snout scarred and dry. His shoulders, still strong, hunched when he came away from the wall where he was leaning, and his back slumped down under the weight of unfathomable age.
The dark smell of impending death shrouded him, and when he came closer that shroud enveloped Sara too. Underneath that smell, Sara felt his exhaustion and its thin hold on his urges. To kill, to maim, to take—all barely held back by the little life he had left.
Nicky came into the room, chest again painted with that scrawled goat, erection pointing straight up. When he saw the beast, his eyes glowed red. Sara saw his posture change, his muscles twitch, and she screamed.
The black-suited man shoved his fist into her mouth, choking off the sound. She could barely breathe but managed to squeak air in through her nose. He still smelled the same, like burnt hazelnut and exotic, clinging aromatics. Nicky approached the beast, bolder with each step. It opened its mouth and growled. Generations of suffering pulsed in that growl. Her own voice swirled there, every word she should have said, everything she should have done. The bad people wailing their bad choices into a symphony, and Sara was the virtuoso soloist.
Nicky took it in, smiled, and then nodded.
“We’re going to go now,” the black-suited man said. “It’s been a pleasure doing business in you.” He giggled. “Sorry, with you.” He pulled his fist out of her mouth and stood.
“I often wonder why everyone, every single one, tries to undo a deal,” he said. “You got what you wanted. You all always do, every time—too bad none of you think about what you’re asking. Tsk-tsk.”
Sara wanted to protest further, betrayal-fueled rage building in her, but then—Nicky was a monster, wasn’t he? A walking nightmare, inhuman and uncontrollable. She shook her head. He was her son, of course she loved him, and she refused to be relieved he was being taken.
The black-suited man giggled again. “No take-backsies, Sara. What’s done is done. And you did it well.” He winked at her. “I’d fair say you earned this, even. Every last bit of it.”
Nicky put his hand in the beast’s scraggly paw and Sara wailed.
Not for the nightmare she’d lived with, not for its disappearing, but for the son she knew hid somewhere in that monster child, stealing smiling glances at her from deep behind its glowing eyes.
The beast turned toward the door to the bedroom, and Sara’s screaming intensified. It stumbled, and Nicky shifted into the crook of his arm, keeping him upright. The black-suited man looked back over his shoulder.
“We appreciate his name,” he said. “You couldn’t have known, but it was a nice touch.” He winked, and they disappeared down the hall.
Sara’s sobbing drowned out their footsteps and the front door closing, but the man’s voice echoed long after they were gone, long after she stopped crying, and long after she cut herself.
She could still save him, the him that curled up for bedtime stories, the him that still knew the word Mother, and leave the demon around him in Hell.
She waited in the tub, the veins in her wrists open, for that old sour smell to mark the beginning of a new negotiation.
Eli Ryder writes dark fiction and teaches college English. His work has appeared online and in print, and he is a co-founder of www.automatareview.com. He stole his MFA from UC Riverside’s low-residency program in Palm Desert, and is an avid lover of all things twisted.