by Denise Winters
I listened for the sound of my parents puttering around in the kitchen, my heart in my throat. But they must have went straight to bed, and would likely stay there for a while. It was always like that when they worked the night shift, but if they were going to pick a morning to not go straight to bed, it would be just like my luck for them to choose this one. I inched up the window, stopping every time it caught and the glass rattled. It was a hard sound to make out over the sound of the blood in my ears roaring like the sound of the ocean in a sea shell. I got the window up just enough to squeeze through before I slipped out and lowered it back down behind me.
The evening was cool, in the way an oven is cool a half hour after it has been turned off. I looked back at the house over my shoulder, then cut cross the yard at a crouch. I wasn’t sure what that would help exactly, but it seemed like the right thing to do when sneaking away.
She hesitated at the entrance to the path. Large bushes flanked the narrow path. She took a deep breath and stepped forward, ducking beneath the branches of the short trees and turning sideways to avoid being scratched. Stepping into the field felt like entering a new world. The ordinariness of the field in the morning light felt like a betrayal, a false conveyer of comfort and familiarity in light of what she had seen here earlier in the day. As a matter of fact, the normalcy seemed exaggerated: the sunlight brighter, the grass greener, and the path less defined so that the field appeared unmolested. It would be easy to turn back, sneak back in and climb into her bedroom, but her granddaddy would die then. He would die and that good-for-nothing, no-count demon would have his soul.
Hannah kept moving, her hands in her pockets and trying to ignore the itch between her shoulders. She was glad she was alone. She ran as fast as she could, even closing her eyes for fear she might see something she could do without seeing. All of a sudden, her plan felt foolish and not a little bit ridiculous. But she was more sure of where Mr. Davis kept that fiddle, and who Mr. Davis really was, than she was sure she could have won that contest. Or at least she had better have been, because it was an awful big gamble to have taken.
She crouched at the edge of the field closest to Mr. Davis’ house. All the lights were off. She crept closer, trying to pick up on any sounds. It was a rare day that no music drifted from the house if he was there. If he wasn’t playing, or teaching someone else too play, then he was playing this or that record as loud as that stereo could make it. But there was nothing, nothing but silence.
Hannah took a deep breath and ran off across the tall grass, the tips of the blades stinging her bare legs and her breathing heavy from exertion and fear. She ducked under his bedroom window and listened again, just to be sure. Nothing, nothing but a silence as unnatural for his house as well, as the thing she did not want to hold in her head.
She reached up and cut around the screen with her pocket knife. When she felt it loosen, she pulled it out and jumped back as it fell to the ground bringing a rain of rust and paint chips with it. She pulled herself up onto the window ceiling and clutched on to the top of the lower window pane with one hand. Her legs shook but kept just enough purchase on the bottom of the window ledge for her to use her other hand, wrapped up in one of her old t-shirts, to punch through the window pane. Two things came at once: a crash loud enough to raise the dead and the realization she should have used a rock.
She reached through and unlocked the window, her hand dripping blood onto the top of the window. Hannah jumped down and pushed the window up and crawled in. The house had looked dark from the outside, but inside it was hard to tell that the sun had not already set, let alone that it would not be setting for another hour at least.
There was only darkness and shapes and shadows in the room. Hannah flitted forth, pinching her nostrils shut by pushing up her top lip. The room smelled of alcohol and rot, and the smell that accompanied snakes and moldy leaves in graveyards. The thought of a graveyard focused Hannah and she crept over to the tall book case. She felt her way in the darkness, trying to shake the itching between her shoulder blades and the fear that every time she reached her hand forward, she was going to feel something reaching back for her from the darkness.
Hannah’s hands caught the edges of the plywood bookcase. Standing on her tiptoes and knocking from the top to the bottom, she listened to every sound and echo, looking for one that might sound different. The knocks resounded through the room, the emptiness swallowing them as they floated more than a few feet. Hannah stopped. She tapped that space again, and then again. The echo sounded less muffled.
She bent down and felt beneath the bottom of the case, trying to see if she could get enough purchase to pull away the side panel. She felt something furry brush against her knuckles and yanked her hand back. There was no time for this, she needed to move fast, no matter the cost. She knew kids who had been to juvie and the stories scared her, but she was sure she could be okay. Her granddaddy would be okay, and right now that meant more than anything.
Hannah’s hand still dripped blood, plus she thought it would be a lot harder to knock in wood than a window. She backed up, right to the edge of the cluttered bed and drew back her leg, bringing her knee into her stomach. She kicked as hard as she could and felt as much as heard the wood splinter and crack. She drew back her leg again and drove it forward, harder and faster this time. Her right leg and left hand now made a matched pair. She ignored the sting and approached the broken panel.
She took a big breath, noticing the small sounds that filled the room now that the loudness from the kicks were gone and the pounding of her heart had slowed. A clocked ticked in the background, and the scurry of feet could be heard between the walls and rustling the papers scattered around the wound.
Hannah pulled away the splintered wood as much as she could, dust irritating her nose and throat, making her scratched up hand and leg burn even worse. Smoke wafted from the panel, a deep gray fog that made her gag. She started to cry. There was a great deal she had been prepared to deal with, to risk, but having to put her hand in there, to have to touch that fog, let it touch her, crawl into her was almost too much. Almost.
She slid her hand inside and her hands found threadbare velvet. She let her hand roam over the bag until she found what should be the fiddle’s neck. She pulled it out and held it at arm’s length. The bag seemed to pulse and the fog fit itself to the contours of her arm. Hannah felt as though she was about to faint, as though her knees were about to buckle. But she fought through the nausea, fought through the dizziness of her vision.
The front door seemed too far away, and would involve walking through the rest of the house. She staggered to the window and fell more than climbed out, falling to the ground on her knees and rolling to keep from breaking the fiddle. The cooling air was a relief and chased away her queasiness. Hannah got to her feet and started out at a trot, then a run, and last a sprint.
Her balance was off, trying to run and hold her right arm out in front of her to avoid snagging the fiddle on branches that lined the path, trying to keep the pulsating, vibrating device as far from her as she could. She burst from the wooded path into the field.
Her lungs burned and her scratches ached. Her vision was blurred by tears and fear, and she felt worse laying still at the crossroads than she had while running. She laid with her head low, trying to keep her entire body below the height of the grass to make sure she could not be seen from the dirt road, just in case a car decided to choose that moment to come rolling by. The dirt caked up in the rivulets of her drying blood, and the grass stung like ant bites. Hannah raised her head just high enough to talk and not take in mouthfuls of the brown dirt.
“Hey you,” she whispered, figuring that shouting wouldn’t be much use. Where this thing was coming from, it would either hear a whisper or it wouldn’t hear nothing at all. “I got what it is you want. You come on up to these crossroads and you can get it.”
There was nothing but the deep croaking of bullfrogs and the high–pitched chirping of crickets for a few moments. But then, the air shimmered, right where she had seen the creature before. And he was there. Cloven feet, pale tan hat and overcoat, and black shirt. Hannah stood up and crossed the dirt road, staying out of the reach of that damn fog.
“You got it?”
Hannah held out the bag in answer. It occurred to her that it was odd she had never even checked to see what was in that bag, but it had seemed so unnecessary at the time. What if the fiddle wasn’t in here? And she had already taken her name off the lists for the contest. Would begging to get back on look suspicious? She shook her head, shaking away the doubts. Even if she doubted that this was what she had been sent after, she did not doubt the demon’s reaction.
It cackled and jumped in the air doing a turn and a jig. “Damn girl, you came through. Now come on over here and give it to me, and then that little deal you and me done made is good and done.”
Hannah felt the fiddle beating faster in her hand. “I can throw it to you.”
The demon frowned and bit down on its lower lip. “You have to hand it to me. Come on, I done made a deal and I ain’t gonna go back on it. You just make sure you don’t renege on your part. Now just step on over here and hand me that fiddle.”
“Why? Why do I have to hand it to you?” She looked down at the fog. The grayness lapped at her feet, coming just short of touching her. She took another step back.
“Because, whoever owns it has to give it back to me freely.”
“I don’t see how that make much sense. Why does it matter? If you just want the fiddle back, how does it matter how you get it back?”
“Listen.” the demon’s nose steamed in the growing darkness. “You just listen here girl. You want that deal we made about your granddaddy, then you get over here and you give me that fiddle. Just hand it off to me, that’s all you got to do.”
Hannah brushed one of her braids back behind her ear. “Please, just take it.” She drew back her arm and started to throw the fiddle at the demon.
“Stop.” The demon held out its hands in front of it in the sign for stop. “Stop okay, just stop. Don’t you dare throw that fiddle.” It brushed down its blouse and then rocked back and forth from heel to toe. “Is it the fog? You don’t have to be afraid of that, it’s just a side effect that’s all. You give me that fiddle, and I promise you that it will be the last you see of this fog.”
Hannah gulped, her heart and stomach fluttered in unison. She took a step forward, and then another. She let out one single sob when her feet were enveloped by the fog but she kept moving forward, and forward, and forward. She kept the fiddle out in front of her, her arm outstretched. It felt like moving a mile through molasses, but she came to within grabbing distance of the demon.
It smiled wider than Hannah thought possible and then clamped down on her arm. Hannah dropped the bag and screamed but the demon drew her closer, its mouth widening and widening. She pulled on her arm, she kicked at its leg. She bit at its arm and she screamed some more. She clawed at its eyes and tried to stomp on its hooves, but the grip got tighter and tighter.
“Please stop. Let me go. Please let me go.”
“No, no, no, the devil always collects his due.”
Hannah sobbed. “The fiddle. You said you came for the fiddle.”
Hannah kept pulling until her head swam, until her knees buckled and she sank into the soft ground. Until the fog crawled up her legs and scurried up over her chest and neck. She looked up and opened her mouth to scream but the fog snaked into her open mouth and down her throat. The demon spoke in her voice, “Oh sweetheart, you lucky in a way. I mean, just think about how easy you will be able to trick some hapless kid into coming to you. Why, I been working this here crossroads for years and just now found out the more complicated you make a request the more a human child will trust you.” She glared at the bag on the ground and the demon shrugged and scrunched up her nose.
“Oh this?” The demon with her face chuckled her chuckle and Hannah watched as the bag was absorbed into the fog. The demon tapped its head and then its mind. In the distance Hannah saw a bright red apple, a golden fiddle, a bright white harp and a dozen other shapes. “You will find that humans are masters of seeing what they want to see and finding whatever they think it is they need to find.”
“Granddaddy?” Hannah coughed out.
The demon stepped onto the dirt road and bounced up and down. Hannah rolled over onto her back and tried to sit up, but her body was heavy. Her body was so heavy that it felt as though she was sinking into the dirt, the fog, her fog, digging the ground out from beneath her body. She heard a voice that was her voice, singing in the distance, and she felt legs that were her legs, growing heavy with coarse matted fur.
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