They always come.
It doesn’t matter if they’ve heard the stories.
It doesn’t matter if they’ve been warned.
They always come.
And by the knocking of the door, there’s one now.
Might as well let them in.
Alaina closed her notebook and hooked the pen to the spiral. Her watch said 7:00; not quite full-dark, but close. Whoever they were, they were brave to venture through the forest so late.
She called out, “Coming!”
She wanted to add, “idiot,” but didn’t. It wouldn’t matter. These curious, self-centered, asshole young people never learned.
This time, it was a couple. She guessed he was in his mid-twenties; the young woman might have been twenty at best. Snappily dressed, well-coiffed, perfect eyebrows –
“What can I do for you?” she asked, hoping her voice sounded more congenial than she felt.
“Um, so, yeah…” The young woman brushed a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. “We’re from the paper…”
Alaina almost laughed. These little nitwits probably couldn’t spell the word “paper,” much less work for one.
Alaina held up a hand to stop the woman from lying again. “It doesn’t matter. Come on in.”
The couple stepped over the threshold. After the usual “oohs” and “aahs” over her antique furniture and too many “thank yous” for either one of them to be actual journalists, Alaina asked them to have a seat at her table.
The young man ran his hand over the top of her table. “This isn’t wood. What is this?”
“Formica. It’s older than you both; make a note to ask Google later.”
Alaina pointed to the teapot on her stove, and it whistled as if on cue.
“May I offer you some tea?”
The young man smiled and nodded. “Sure. Thank you.”
The woman declined politely. “None for me, thanks.”
Alaina smiled at her. “You want some.”
“Now that you mention it, I am thirsty.”
She brought them each a cup and sat down. “Now, what brings you here from the, uh, ‘paper’?” She tried to hide her smirk and failed miserably.
“We’re investigating the old legends about the, um, demon.”
“Oh, that old story? Where did you hear it?”
“We stopped at the Kingston Café. The owner and some other guy told us about it. We, y’know, investigate paranormal cases for the paper, so we thought this might be a good story.”
“It’s wild.” The young man took a sip of his tea and smiled. “I think the other guy was the mayor? You don’t normally hear politicians telling ghost stories. But he said the whole town talks about it.” He chewed his lip. “I don’t mean to offend, but they say it lives here.”
She laughed. “I’m sure they do. Tell me your names.”
And we’re the onion twins, she thought, and almost laughed. She knew she was the only one old enough to remember the commercial … what was it for? Salad dressing?
She jolted herself from her thoughts and sipped her tea. “Nice to meet you both. I’m Alaina. But you know that, don’t you?”
“Um, yes ma’am.” Colby said, and pretended to take notes on his phone. “Ms. Alaina, could you tell us why the town thinks this demon even exists, much less lives here?”
“Of course I can.” She leaned back and motioned for them to set their phones up to record. “Take good notes, kids. I’m only going to tell this once.”
I was young. Somewhere between four and seven. Oh, don’t look at me like that; when you get to be my age, time blurs together.
My mother and the man she married took me to a little church just outside of town. Dripping Springs, it was called. Why, I have no idea. It wasn’t like any church I’d attended before; loud music, dancing, and very, very loud preaching.
The preacher … he was an odd man. Overly dramatic and intense. As young as I was, I remember being creeped out by him. During one service, I remember having a nosebleed. I used to have bad ones that were hard to get stopped. Instead of taking me home, we stayed through the service so he and several others could pray for me. Mom never did get all the blood off my dress…
Some of the followers came to our house with trash bags one evening and threw away a lot of my mother’s knick-knacks. They even pulled pictures down off the walls and threw them away. Claimed all of it was demonic and this needed to happen to cleanse the house and “save our souls.” Then they and my mother sat in a circle on the living room floor and prayed for her salvation. I don’t get it, not at all, but it’s not for me to judge. I read that whole “judge not” thing in a book somewhere…
Colby chuckled. “The Bible, right?”
“Yes, Captain Obvious, it was the Bible. May I continue?”
Courtney elbowed him. “Shut up, Colby!”
Where was I? Oh! The night this whole thing started. It was regular church – I mean, as regular as that wild bunch could be – and the preacher was raining down fire and brimstone on all of us. That was all he ever concentrated on. Not how to survive day-to-day living, not how to love one another – just how shitty it would be for you if you didn’t obey him. Yeah, I said him with a little “h,” not a capital one. I think he only waved a Bible during services because people thought it was a necessary prop. Hell, fire, and damnation filled our Sunday nights, and my mother ate it up. We were there every time the doors were open. Sunday twice, Wednesday night, and every single night of a revival.
The only thing I really understood was she forced me to wear a dress and I hated it. She said it was in the Bible, but even after I read it cover-to-cover, I couldn’t find it. But you kids aren’t in the mood to hear that little argument. I’ll save it for later.
“You said the whole demon story started that night?”
“Why, yes I did, Courtney. Thank you for bringing me back in line.”
Okay, so, hell, fire, damnation, blah, blah, worldwithoutend, amen. Anyway, that night, this woman no one knew jumped up and yelled at the preacher. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but a bunch of big guys grabbed her arms and kept her from running off. The preacher came down and started shouting, “Demon!” and, “I cast you out in the name of Jesus!” and a whole lot of other stuff I can’t remember. I know I was scared and wanted to go home, but my mother and that man she married were having none of it. They would stay and pray until they were told to go home.
“What did the woman do?” Colby asked. “I mean, she was just mad or something, right?”
“Why would you be here if she was just mad or something?”
Courtney rolled her eyes. “Jeez, Colby, shut up!”
Alaina motioned for them to keep recording.
The woman fought like – well? – fought like a demon. She spat at the preacher and the other men. She growled, she snarled, she roared. She even tried to bite one of the men holding her. They kept praying. Finally, and this is gross – she puked. Everywhere. All over her. All over them. All over the pew in front of her. You know, like the kid in the Exorcist movie?
Now, don’t stop me, let me finish. After she quit yarking up her guts, she started to cry. That’s when everyone cheered and praised the Lord and thanked Him for her deliverance. The ladies helped her clean up and everybody finally went home. If it wasn’t for the stain on the pew they couldn’t completely clean, it was like it’d never happened.
Alaina paused. She did it primarily for dramatic effect, but also to let them catch on to what she hadn’t told them.
Courtney hugged herself and shivered. “So, was it … I mean, what happened after that? You still haven’t said why the town says the demon lives here.”
Alaina poured them both some more tea, glad they hadn’t noticed their phones had died. “Let’s see how I can best explain this. The preacher? The congregation? They didn’t think it through. Ask anyone – when you cast something out, it’s got to have somewhere to go, right? Well, when they did their little prayer thingy, no one thought to open the door. No one even cracked a window. So the demon flies out in a river of barf with nowhere to run … and it had a whole church full of bodies to take over. Any red-blooded demon isn’t going to choose an addled old blue-haired Bible thumper, no matter how funny it would be.”
Colby rubbed his eyes and yawned. “Oh man, sorry. So they think the demon chose you?”
She laughed. “Colby, you’re smarter than I thought.”
He kept talking as if he didn’t catch the insult. “But you were so young. Why did they think that?”
“Because people died around me. A lot.”
Alaina smiled as warmly as her growing irritation would allow. “Yes, really. People would walk past me on the street and right out in front of a bus. Schoolyard bullies would be found hanging from a rung on the slide ladder. At first, people thought it was an accident, but when Lady Barfsalot – you know, the one from the church – turned up dead after I said hello to her, they centered on me.”
“Why?” Courtney nudged her companion. “Quit yawning!”
Colby shook his head. “I don’t know why I’m so tired.”
Alaina smiled. “I was the youngest in the church. The most innocent, according to them. The easiest one for the demon to take over.”
“How old were you when they started that shit, um, I mean stuff?”
“Sixteen. Budding womanhood, noticing boys, and boom, now I’m a demon spawn. Puberty isn’t such a bitch when you see what I went through.”
“What did you do? How many people died?”
“Let me answer you backward. Sixty-six people died, all tied to me in one way or another. They wanted to burn me at the stake, but the town council wouldn’t go for it. So I moved out here.”
“Did they try to pray over you?” Courtney asked.
“Oh yes. Several times. But they finally gave up after the third try. I guess when you’ve got a demon inside you for almost a decade, he’s pretty much homesteaded.”
“That’s so awful! Do you ever go back into town?”
“Oh, absolutely not. Thanks to modern technology, I don’t have to go.”
“What year did you move out here? You know, for our article.”
Courtney stared at her. “But … it’s 2020.”
Alaina set her cup down on the table. This was her favorite part.
“Yes, I know.”
“How … how old are you?”
Alaina could see the wheels turning in Courtney’s mind. She looked to her companion, but Colby’s eyes were closed, his head resting on his chest. He was sound asleep.
“That’s not possible. Colby? Colby, wake up!”
Colby didn’t move. Alaina laughed when Courtney tried to stand and couldn’t make her legs move.
“What did you do to me?”
Alaina ignored her. She went to the kitchen counter and picked up her favorite knife.
“Twenty-seven seemed like a good time to stop aging. Still young enough to have fun, but old enough not to get caught. The town knew me, though. Knew me for what I was.” She wiped the knife clean. “Knew us for what we were.”
“Please let me go!”
“Let you go? No thought for the boyfriend?” Alaina snorted. “So self-absorbed! And by the way? You’re not from the paper. How much money did they offer you to come out here?”
“Okay, enough, we’re sorry, you’re right. We’re not from the paper. A thousand bucks. We were going to split it. We thought it was bullshit so we said okay!” Courtney tried to reach for Colby and couldn’t.
“Please, just let us go!”
Alaina rolled her eyes. “A thousand bucks, and you didn’t think there might be something wrong? No, I’m afraid we can’t let you go.” She tilted Colby’s head back, exposing his throat. “You’re part of the deal.”
Tears spilled from Courtney’s unblinking eyes. “D…deal?”
“Uh-huh. The town sends inquiring minds like yours, and we don’t hunt them. I would usually hunt the both of you, just for fun, but it’s late, and I smell rain coming. I’ll just dine inside tonight.” She used the knife to nick the artery in Colby’s neck just enough to not make a mess of her floor. She ran her finger along the blood and licked it clean.
“It’s been awhile, so I’m glad they sent two.”
Alaina smiled at the terrified woman, and spoke in two voices.
“We’re soooooo hunnnnngry…”
Courtney screamed. Colby bled. Night fell.
“Jeb? How long’s it been?”
The old man, the town’s mayor for the last fifty years, shrugged his withered shoulders. “Since the last one? I dunno, Tom. About a month, maybe less?”
“Yeah? Well, what do you think about that one there?” Tom pointed to a young man sitting alone in the corner booth. His attention was completely taken by his phone. “He looks like he’s going all sorts of nowhere.”
Jeb eyed the newcomer thoughtfully, wondering where he was headed, and if anyone was waiting on him.
“Hmmm. Find out if anyone knows he’s here. If not, tell him the story. Looks like he might need money – thousand bucks if he’ll go out there.”
”Sure thing, Jeb.”
Tom cut a piece of Maybelle’s cherry pie and walked over to make a new acquaintance.
Jeb sighed. It had to be done, that was the deal. One day, he knew he’d get up the nerve to go out there to her cabin and offer himself to the demon. He was eighty-five now, and even though he still felt pretty spry, he knew his time was drawing short.
Jeb watched Tom draw the young man into conversation and wondered about the two they’d chosen to send into the forest last month. It hurt his heart to do it, but a deal was a deal, after all.
”Send them to me and I won’t hunt all of you.”
Someday, he’d go out to the cabin. Someday, he’d be the one she would feed on. Maybe it would make up for ignoring the preacher who’d asked him to open the window that night. Maybe it would make up for the hundreds who’d been sent to die.
“I wish your momma would have let me kill you, child.” Jeb muttered under his breath. But she wouldn’t, and now all he could wonder was – who would feed his step-daughter after he was gone?