Murderous Guests and Other Signs You’re Grieving
Grief can be all consuming… but not nearly as much as smoke demons.
Author: Chris Daruns
Bio: Chris Daruns works as a paramedic in Colorado when he’s not writing or goofing off in the mountains. His short story collection, We Were Always Monsters, can be found on Amazon.
Narrator: Eddie Knight
Eddie Knight has been a technical leader in organizations ranging from financial services to software security, enabling him to gain the wealth of experience and insight that he brings as a speaker, author, and strategist.
“Bring me a dead cat.”
The bellowing voice emanating from the basement broke James’ immersion in the podcast he was enjoying.
Sighing, he turned to the basement door. “No.”
“I require sustenance,” the voice purred. Even now, that voice sent an involuntary chill up James’ neck. “It doesn’t have to be dead if you’re too squeamish about it.”
“I’m not negotiating this with you. Or did you forget the last time you asked me for a snack? I left you a dead spider and the next day a wolf spider the size of a chihuahua was wandering around my living room.”
The voice was silent just long enough for James to turn back to the kitchen, to finish preparing dinner.
“That was a minor lapse in judgment.”
“I had to kill it with an ax. It was very gross.”
“See. If I’d sent it to harm you, it wouldn’t have been so easily dispatched.”
“Uh-huh. I don’t get why you think you need to eat anything, anyway. You’re basically immortal, right? Weren’t you locked inside a carving for a couple of thousand years? Not exactly a lot of cats to eat there, huh?”
“Imprudent human!” the voice hissed. “I was bound to the idol of Ignatius the Butcher of Crete for a mere seventeen hundred years! That you have not bowed in submission to me is an oversight in need of correcting! I am the god of pain and torment, the agent of suffering embodied whole!”
“No, you’re the asshole that hides in my basement. Now, kindly fuck off.”
James turned back to his food—a single simmering burger patty—and tried not to think about how the voice emanated from the bottom of the basement door. His guest was slithering again, staying low. The thought sent another involuntary shiver up his back.
For three months James had been effectively barred from his own basement because a demon from the bronze age decided to couch surf there.
Tali or Nyx or whatever it currently styled itself as had been trying to kill him for that entire time.
And here he was purposefully trying to piss it off.
The basement door bowed in a splintering of stressed wood and flew open.
“Fool!” Nyx screeched.
This was not the first time it had done this.
Nyx revealed himself: a shiny white ram’s skull with empty eye sockets and the teeth of a carnivore that floated midair in what appeared to be a cloud of black smoke. A long tongue, bruise purple, rolled out of its wicked mouth.
“I will play music with your bones!” it growled.
James had just enough time for the resigned terror to grab hold of him, that this would finally be the day Nyx killed him.
The attic door, located just above the basement’s entrance, fell open. The folded stairs unrolled themselves in three jarring clacks revealing the black interior.
This too had happened before.
Nyx hissed like steam escaping a boiler, wisps of black smoke curling backward in the demonic equivalent of surprise. The ram’s skull head turned to the open attic, jaw hanging open.
His anger at James’ provocation was forgotten and it sucked itself back into the basement, slamming the door behind him.
His dinner was burning.
Cursing, annoyed, he salvaged it the best he could. One partially burnt patty wasn’t the end of the world. With a bun, sliced onion and tomato, some ketchup, and a slice of cheddar, it was a passable, if uninspired, burger.
He ate in silence, the podcast forgotten, staring at the open attic door.
The pattern was the same. Every time Nyx attempted to come up to the main level, the attic door flew open and, for whatever reason, Nyx was terrified of whatever lived in the attic.
The thing was, near as James could tell, the attic was empty.
The only things up there were a couple of boxes of old toys and another, smaller one containing photo albums.
Whatever opened the attic door never closed it. Sometimes James would come home to find it open, denoting that Nyx had attempted entry to the main level, and also that whatever lived in the attic, stopped him.
His house was disputed territory in some netherworld conflict he wasn’t quite privy to. It was ridiculous.
Finishing his meal, he set the plate in the sink and approached the attic stairs.
At first, he intended to just shut it, just fold up the stairs, and be done with it.
His foot was already on the first rung when he realized he was going to take another look.
The darkness of the attic was parallel with the darkness of the basement. His house, it seemed, was full of dark, uninviting spaces.
Part of him, the same part that taunted Nyx, wished an icy hand would grab him by the throat and drag him up into that darkness. He imagined that same hand snapping his vertebrae like pencil lead and leaving him twitching and spasming in the dark, unable to move, limp until he died. Then the two demons that lived in his house could fight it out in whatever ways demons do.
But there was nothing like that up there.
The attic of his one-story ranch house was mostly just the roof’s slanted pink insulation on either side of a narrow walkway barely wide enough to crawl along. The boxes, stacked haphazardly, were the heavy plastic totes his wife had purchased. James remembered giving her grief when she brought them home, scoffing that cardboard boxes would have fulfilled the same task.
Staring at them now, he felt a pang of guilt.
While standing precariously on the second to last rung, he pulled one off the others and opened it.
A paper snowflake lay on top of the rest of his daughter’s artwork; a stack of colored paper covered in crayon, marker, stickers, and pom-poms held in place by white glue. The snowflake was merely a piece of blue construction paper her teacher had cut into the star shape, his daughter’s only contribution being lines of white glue holding the glitter sprinkled over it. It was hideous and he loved it.
There were photo albums under the artwork. Another contribution from his wife, who’d made sure that their family’s life was well-documented in physical form and not just digital. The very idea of pulling one of the albums out to look at filled James with such cold dread that it made his knees buckle.
He closed the box and pushed it away but held on to the snowflake.
He closed the attic and put the snowflake back on the fridge with a Homer Simpson magnet, nearly in the same spot it had been before.
When had he packed it away? Four months ago? Six? He wasn’t sure.
For not the first time, James felt like a ghost in his own house. He existed, floating from room to room, each containing memories that he did not want to think about. The happy ones were the worst.
It was then, staring at the crooked snowflake, that he decided to kill himself.
That thought, a realization so obvious, was a relief.
Unconsciously, he supposed he’d been building up to it for weeks. The burger had been the most he’d managed to cook for himself in about the same amount of time.
Relaxation washed over him in a gust of cold wind, the tension in his shoulders abating so abruptly he had to sit down.
James tried to think of a reason not to. Something to grasp, hold on to, but the only thing he could come up with was a broad and obscure fear of death.
He thought how he would do it and imagined putting a pistol in his mouth, teeth clicking against chrome, finger squeezing the trigger and, then . . . what? Lights out? The instant black of nonexistence? Or worse, an afterlife?
James apparently lived in a world that included smoke demons. Though he hadn’t directly asked Nyx, some sort of afterlife seemed plausible, even likely. Between heaven or hell, he didn’t know which would be worse.
He reached out and touched the basement door, seeing if he could feel Nyx on the other side. He let his fingers dance off the handle and then reconsidered. He pulled the snowflake off the refrigerator and folded it, slipping it into a pocket.
Then he opened the basement door.
The stairs disappeared into inky darkness but Nyx was not immediately visible. James descended slowly, realizing that he didn’t know what Nyx got up to down there.
He reached the bottom of the stairs and resisted the urge to flick on the lights. Instead, he let his eyes adjust. The basement was mostly as he remembered, with the added smell of sulfur mixed with a sharp scent that immediately made his head pound. He didn’t know what brimstone smelled like but it was probably close to this.
His wife’s office, really just a storage room containing boxes and file cabinets, stood off to the right of the stairs. She’d worked as an art dealer and had collected scores of pieces she’d archived and stored in the cool, dry, and dark room.
The door was slightly ajar.
James could feel Nyx’s presence the way the mouse felt the cat’s gaze.
Now or never, he thought.
“Nyx,” he said, louder than he intended. “Come out here. I’m ready for you.”
Nothing. No response.
Clenching his teeth, a chaotic mixture of anger and fear flooding his chest, he tried again. “Come kill me, coward. Kill me before I change my mind. I know you want to.”
The smell of sulfur grew stronger and mixed with the acrid smoke of burning plastic. Wisps of black smoke flowed from around the half-opened office door and enveloped him. The smoke had weight where it touched him. He could feel tendrils tugging on him like fingers as they passed around his limbs.
The ram’s skull, teeth shiny and inexplicably sharp, hovered over him. The smoke passing through empty eye sockets gave Nyx an almost melancholy expression.
“Come to kneel in submission, mortal?”
“I’m not some fucking Babylonian farmer. Just kill me. Or whatever your kind does.”
A black wisp of smoke wrapped around his throat, cold like ocean water, and lifted him off his feet more gently than he expected. He resisted sputtering and choking but felt blood pool in his face. More tendrils wrapped around his body, and James understood what a rabbit constricted by a python must feel like.
“Why don’t you fight?” Nyx cooed, long tongue unfurling. “You taste so much better when you fight.”
Even in the darkness of the basement, James felt his sight dim. Blackness pushed into his field of vision from the periphery, narrowing around the clear image of that stupid ram’s skull with its stupid hungry smile.
Fuck you, James wanted to say but he could no longer speak.
Then there was light.
That was it then. The darkness of death folded in on itself until it became the light of the last neurons firing in his brain.
Distantly, he heard the demon hiss. Then he fell, or rather, was dropped. The impact of hitting the floor jolted him back awake, and he coughed as the blood drained out his head.
The basement went white hot with light so intense, for a moment James wondered if he’d been transported outside.
A voice boomed from behind him.
One sentence, so instantly recognizable that James thought that he had died. This was that going into the light and seeing your dead loved ones thing he’d always heard about from TV shows.
But Nyx’s reaction was unmistakable terror. He was scared of it like the attic door and reacted the same. Only this time there wasn’t a place to escape to. Nyx’s smoke body sucked itself into the skull like a turtle retreating into its shell. The hovering skull, supported by nothing, wobbled, then fell to the carpeted floor. It should have landed with an unimpressive thud but instead, it shattered.
Shards of bone mushroomed out like a bomb blast and they disappeared in little puffs of ash. Just like that, Nyx was gone.
James turned around, hoping for just a glance of who had saved him. The light faded as quickly as it arrived and just a glance was all he got.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
And she smiled back at him, waving.
It was enough.
James climbed the stairs and lay on his kitchen floor for a long time before moving again.
He pulled the snowflake from his pocket again and studied it. He thought of her small hands clumsily shaking glitter out onto the quickly drying white glue, and tried not to think about those same hands pale and limp in the too-small casket. He thought of rain and seatbelts and twisted metal. He thought of his wife’s dead eyes as he hung upside down, held there by a seatbelt, while she didn’t. He thought of his chest, hollowed out and empty, a black hole formed by a collapsing star. The gravity of his grief crushing him. He thought of that stupid, reckless, violent grief that led him to smash several supposedly priceless pieces in his wife’s collection.
He remembered thinking what a stupid carved piece of rock had that made it priceless when he’d already caused the destruction of everything of value in his life anyway. And why should he care how fucking old it was?
But now the words reverberated in his mind as he struggled to hold on to every nuance, every syllable.
The gravity of that voice gave hint to the woman she would’ve become; a strong, courageous voice that would’ve belonged to an impressive, capable woman.
“Leave my dad alone!” she told Nyx. No, that wasn’t right. She’d ordered Nyx. Commanded him.
Light folded in on itself to become darkness folded into light.
And James had seen his daughter’s smile again. Just for a moment and just at a glance. But it was enough.
He would see her again. Of that he was sure. He would see them both again.
But not today.