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Dominic’s Demons

Every home I have ever lived in has also been home to a demon.

You might be inclined to assume that this ‘demon’ I speak of is myself, which is an offense I can forgive. After all, to an outside observer, I am the only common element. But I assure you, I am neither a servant of the Devil nor have I gone mad with the onset of years or this situation. Disbelieve me if that is your reaction, but I implore you to listen for a while. This is a tale I have not told anyone, for reasons that should become sufficiently clear as I speak.

I first took notice of the matter in my childhood home. It was a home by the sea, the land inherited from a distant uncle. The structure itself was designed to homage the styles of Edwardian architecture, to appease my mother’s fondness for antiquity. But my father’s influence was behind the multitude of secret passages built into it that allowed him, myself, and my siblings to move around without anyone taking notice. It was something that made hide-and-seek more amusing. My father had an interest in the work of illusionists, though he never indulged in such a life himself. Owing to the insistence of my grandmother, the house was blessed in the custom of the church.

I say these things that I might provide you with the proper context. The land had no dark history, no known crimes. Nothing during the laying of the foundations uncovered anything of relevance, whether criminal or archaeological. The house was not some ancient thing, but merely made to look like one. None in my family had a history with the occult apart from an interest in parlor tricks and misdirection.

Yet, there was a demon in my childhood home.

I know not the demon’s name, for I never asked for such. But I can scarcely forget the flayed face and the rows of teeth filed to dagger-points, or the eyes that were a hollow yellow color that flared with menace in the hours before dawn.

I first witnessed it while it lurked in one of the secret passages of the manor, hunched over with long, bony fingers like a cat that contemplated gnawing on a fresh kill. It had not noticed my presence and, in my childish cowardice, I was frozen still on the spot, unable to move or call out. All I could do was be transfixed on the sight of the creature, with its long limbs and wiry frame, the hints of what must have been something similar to a horse’s mane along its back. One of its hands cradled something in its half-clenched state. In nightmares from later years, I almost thought it clutched at my soul.

I didn’t go into the passages for weeks after that, not until my sister Estelle convinced me that perhaps I’d merely seen something that wasn’t truly there. An illusion brought about by the imagination of a child and the dim light of those tunnels. And I trusted her. So after I gathered my wits and convinced myself it was not truly there, I allowed myself to go back into the passages. On a night when I used one of the passages as a shortcut from the bedroom I shared with my brother Charles to the kitchen, it saw me.

The demon looked at me, yellow eyes focused on my frozen form. It pointed a finger, bony with a fingernail that hooked almost like a raptor’s talon, at me. I felt the sulfur from its breath, the stench of rotten eggs and the crackling of a bonfire. I knew not what it wanted, but when it turned towards me without taking a single step, its movements matched by the sound of popping joints and something crackling in the distance, I ran.

I never ventured into the passages after that, despite the urgings of my siblings. I thought that if I remained far from that place, I would be able to avoid ever seeing it again. That I could pretend that the home I was growing up in was a place of peace, free from the spiritual taint that would have called forth such a creature. But it wasn’t of any use. I saw it at night from then on, in that brief instance before I closed my eyes to sleep. It was there, with a grin that was too wide for a human face.

It would be five years after that when Charles died, and it was decided we should find a new place to call home. He had always been ill, though as time went on, his skin grew jaundiced when it wasn’t possessed of a deathly pallor. The physicians identified the condition and gave all the treatments possible, accounting for every comfort they could, but in the end, it was not sufficient. He withered away in his bed, little by little, consumed by an illness my younger self could scarcely comprehend, until at last, he simply seemed to stop breathing one night. I don’t remember what it is called now, as I chose to forget it. For I know the truth.

No illness took my brother. It was the demon in our home.

I understood that when he died, when I watched his body be placed in the family crypt. I didn’t know what it was the demon did or why it chose to claim my brother instead of me, but I was certain of it. The demon took Charles Hastings. But there was a cold, icy comfort in the assumption that by leaving that home behind, there was a chance that I would be free of the influence of the fiend.

Our next home was a smaller affair than the first, more modern in its architecture. No evidence of arson or foul play. No one died, other than the family cat of the former owners. It was rather like what some would call a brownstone and was placed atop a small hill, making it one of the more prominent homes in the neighborhood.

The walls were thick enough to drown out or muffle almost any sound from passing traffic, creating a clear definition of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ for us. The interior walls were thinner, and sometimes, if I strained myself, I could listen in on my sister Clara’s evening ramblings or my parents discuss matters of the day before bed. I noticed that they made an effort not to speak of Charles for the first few delicate years. Perhaps the pain had been too raw, too difficult yet for them to face head-on. That is what made me resolve never to speak to them of the truth.

I was concerned about the demon, of course. What if it followed us? What if it wanted more of my family? I saw no sign of it, despite my vigilance. When I spied no such thing, even during nights under an ominous new moon or days when crows seemed to flock around the front yard, I felt relief. There was no demon in our new home. I felt a youthful, exuberant confidence in that assumption.

Until that night.

Most of the household was away. Our staff had been given the weekend. My sisters were being entertained in the home of one of their mutual friends, intent on staying the night in their company. My father was out on business, as he so often was during the summer months. My brother and I remained, along with our mother. She had been feeling ill, electing to remain at home rather than join our father on his business travels as was her custom. We expected a quiet evening, the three of us. Dinner, some family chat, perhaps a round or two of Scrabble that Westley so enjoyed playing, and then off to bed for all of us. And for the most part, nothing deviated from such expectations. Nothing save for what I saw looking back at me in the bowl of pumpkin soup my mother prepared.

The new demon didn’t look like the last one. No flayed face or bony fingers. No yellow eyes.

Instead, I saw a creature with deep blue skin that clung to the bones underneath, as if all the flesh in between were gone. The eyes flashed the verdant green of spring and it had an unruly shambling mop of dark blue hair streaked with white. It didn’t look at me so much as acknowledge my presence as I set aside my apprehension and attempted to consume the soup while it was still warm. It showed no other reaction, and despite my trepidation, I managed to remain quiet. When the contents were emptied, I found that the demon was no longer there.

An illusion. I had hoped it was such, though I failed to sleep that night despite the pleasant quiet. I didn’t see or hear it, but I could taste its presence at the tip of my tongue. A curious thing, sweet and metallic in equal measure, and leaving an aftertaste that reminded me of afternoon tea, the smell of overripe apples, and bitter medicine for a bad cough. By that unique scent, I was able to identify her presence.

And the demon was a woman. I saw her in full only once, but that had been enough. The white wedding dress stained by old blood, with a veil torn in two but still worn over her gaunt face. There was a delicate quality to her features, or perhaps that had been the result of the dress she wore. She carried a bouquet of white roses, but each had a single petal soaked through with blood. When I had seen her, she stood in the parlor of the house as if expecting guests to arrive. I had been alone for a brief moment then, and she motioned that I should shush and keep quiet. There was a glimmer of mischief in her eyes when she did that and a razor-like cruelty to her fingers covered in white satin that I understood to be a threat.

I stood there, staring at her. And she stood there, motionless, devoid even of those small tics or the rise and fall of the chest as one breathed. Yet she was unmistakably something that was no statue or painting, that she was an object that ought to have breathed.

That was the only time I ever saw her in full. Sometimes, I saw her hand brushing against the furniture at the edge of my vision, or her shadow looming over the bed where my parents slept. That happened so often when dear mother was ill, but not so ill as to require rest in her bed. An occurrence that grew more common in the months since I first saw the demon.

As time went on, I grew to realize that my mother was ill more and more often. Whereas she once embraced going on business trips with my father with gusto or tending to the affairs of the family’s old fortune, she passed on such excursions and allowed uncles and aunts to tend to more and more of the family’s affairs. Her health degenerated over time, though never quite becoming too ill to move about the home. She never spoke openly of her illness, save around father or her doctors, but I was not above listening in. The malaise was not the same as the one that claimed dear Charles, though that didn’t matter to me. The effect of watching someone I cared about slowly wither away, condemned to a living death as their body failed them in pieces, was the same. A death by a thousand cuts is still a death.

My mother was able to stand only with sharp pains in her final months, lacked the endurance to do more than walk and water her garden. That was when I saw the demon most often, walking about the halls of that brownstone home as if it was her own.

My mother’s death was no surprise to me, or to anyone. She simply tried to climb the steps one day and fell. Estelle and I heard the snapping sound as she stumbled, and from atop the stairs, we saw her. My sister screamed, but I kept quiet. I saw the demon standing over my mother’s body and, when I dared to approach my mother’s body to be sure, the demon turned to me. She shook her head, as if in disapproval. I swallowed the foul taste of fear, and pressed on nonetheless. But I didn’t need to touch my mother or fail to stir her to know she’d died.

I never saw the demon again after that day, even though I spent another five years in that home. On days important to my mother, or days when my father was away on business, I could smell the demon’s presence. It lingered in the kitchen, in the parlor, in the spare room where my mother used to knit, and in the bedroom of my parents. Even in the garden, drowning out the smell of the flowers.

When I left home and the familiar personages of my family for the first time, it was to live in a rented house in Paris. Myself and four others were there. Fair-faced and soothing Patricia, gentle but firm Antoinette, sullen but reliable Henry, and the frustrated artist Simon.

The home was a small and more intimate affair, more vertical than horizontal. We each had a main room and an adjacent room all to ourselves, leaving the rest as common areas. There was a small garden in the back, along with a large space that we’d agreed Simon could use. Antoinette used a spare room as a library, though we held it as a space in common and furnished it with whatever tacky furniture we thought to bring.

The building had a basement level and we’d thought to check it, see if anything was left behind that needed returning. The basement was a modest place, not like the wine cellar of my childhood home. There was a great deal of dust, which the landlord explained as neglect. The last tenants had little reason to clean the place, and the landlord himself never seemed to consider it. Dear Antoinette never complained about it, even as we explored it, but surely it must have aggravated her asthma.

I was the last to go and closed the door behind me when I saw the demon. Different again from before. I only saw it for the briefest of moments, but it was enough to have the image of it burned into my memory.

It dressed in a finely-tailored suit, of the sort that looked to be custom-made to match the demon’s overly-long limbs and gaunt frame. The legs looked shorter than was proper. The upper body was almost triangular in shape, with a belt tight around the waist to worsen the effect. There were no features on that smooth head, but instead everything was white as Ming porcelain. The hands were covered in fine gloves, suitable for attendance at the opera, and I saw the expected glasses in the left hand, even if the thing had no eyes. I closed the door perhaps too hurriedly after that.

The days and weeks passed without incident at first, and I almost let myself forget the demon I saw in the basement. Yet, each time I saw Simon cough because of the fumes from his paints or Antoinette excused herself on account of shortness of breath, I was forced to remember. The demons of before preyed on my ill brother and mother, and it stood to reason to assume that the new one in the home I shared with my friends intended the same. But which one of my two friends in less than impeccable health was it after?

And was I in a position to stop it?

I had not considered looking into the dark arts and the occult before. I wasn’t in a position to do so among my family, nor did I feel any sort of confidence or bravado. A demon was something I felt was beyond my ability to comprehend or contain as a child. But with the exuberance of new adulthood and the lingering sense of invincibility that came from my teen years, as well as the newfound freedom of being away from family, I thought that it might be prudent to at least conduct some research into the matter.

And on that front, dear Antoinette was an absolute delight. She collected books of all sorts, but she had two fascinations that persisted the most. The first was a love of travel books, perhaps owed to her poor constitution preventing her from doing so in person. But the second was collecting texts on the occult. I learned through her prideful verbal dissertations on the matter that she considered herself a bit of a connoisseur on such things, able to discern at least some of the chaff from treatises of actual quality.

We talked a great deal in her little library. Discussions on obscure treatises and theories on which ones had material added or removed over the centuries. Lectures on the Goetia and the Lesser Key, and on texts more esoteric. We shared coffee in the mornings or brandy in the afternoons in such talk, though we were always careful to avoid straining her lungs. She was sensitive to the smoke from pipes and cigars, so despite my fondness for them, I refrained from approaching her or her library with any tobacco products or the lingering smell thereof. Besides that one triviality, she was pleasant company.

And lovely, to add to that. Her complexion was perhaps a bit more pale than I would have liked, but she maintained in her demeanor a refined grace that spoke well of her breeding. Her movements were always delicate but deliberate, and she wasted little motion. If she’d been of stronger, sterner constitution, she may have made a fine fencer or practitioner of pugilist science. Her smile was a comfort to see, and her laugh eased my concerns.

I hadn’t seen much of the demon once I began dabbling in the occult. Antoinette was convinced that she and I shared only an academic interest in it, in the way someone might take an academic interest in Persian art or Chinese poetry. I never intended to inform her that I intended to take things several steps further than she did and dabble in the rituals and practices that were written in her more esoteric texts. While I didn’t see the demon often, sometimes I saw it out of the corner of my eye in the library when I was alone. Sometimes, the fiend sat in Antoinette’s favorite chair. Sometimes, it instead touched the porcelain-coated tips of its wiry fingers on the spines of her books. It was eerie, almost as if it was aware of what I was intending to do.

I attempted to communicate with it once. It was late in the evening and there was no one else at home, save for Simon who was asleep in his studio. The demon moved and titled its head, exposing the curious knotting of the musculature under what passed for skin. I assumed it understood what I was asking, but it never offered anything I was able to interpret as a response.

As I grew in my studies and dabbled in a few rituals, I began to see the demon more often. It taunted me with its silence, mocked my attempts to banish it by shrugging in a manner that was almost human. When my efforts escalated and I began to perform the rituals necessary to call demons of what I assumed to be a higher order to force it to leave, it began to appear around frail Antoinette. She had become more frail as time went on, her fits of coughing and shortness of breath worsening with each attack. She insisted it was merely something passing, or perhaps she needed some country air, but I knew the truth. The demon had taken to sapping her strength, perhaps to counter my rituals. I had to escalate my efforts. But gaining occult knowledge and power took time.

Time, I learned, I did not have.

Simon and I were walking along a street, fresh baguettes in paper bags in our hands, talking about what to have for supper later and the latest fashions the Parisian women wore as we turned the corner towards our shared domicile. He mentioned he had something to ask me about dear Antoinette. And then it happened. The official records say he tripped, that what happened next was an unfortunate accident. But I knew the truth. I saw the demon and how it pulled him into the path of the incoming vehicle. It all happened so fast that I couldn’t do anything to stop it, barely processed it happening until after I heard the crunching snap.

While we did not immediately split apart, our foursome did grow more and more distant from each other after that. Simon was a friend to all of us, and it grew difficult to focus on the others in the wake of his demise. Yet, while our friendship withered and was carried away one piece a day, we lingered on through the motions that were familiar to us for years after.

Antoinette tried to reach out to me a few times in the early months, but I kept myself distant from her as the demon became more and more common a presence at the edge of my vision. In the end, she abandoned any pursuit of rekindling our friendship and common fondness for the occult. The same occult that I’d chosen to abandon, as it hadn’t been of any use. All of that study and learning failed to alert me to the demon’s goals, who it truly targeted. What use was it, then, to continue studying?

By the time we all went our separate ways, our friendship deteriorated such that we were strangers living in the same home. We’d not spoken anything more than polite pleasantries to one another in almost two years. I have often asked myself if I should have warned Antoinette, the only one among us who chose not to leave the place, of the fiend that dwelled there. But it was too late, I understood even then. And she wouldn’t believe me anyway, even when she’d persisted in her study of the occult. I think it was her way of coming to terms with Simon’s death.

I found myself returning to the old brownstone for a time. The demon was there, waiting for me. When I first saw her, I felt as if she had waited to welcome me back.

I remained there accompanied only by servants and Estelle until I found a woman to wed and a home for myself. Evelyn was such a lovely and proper woman, and while I didn’t feel as connected to her as I did dear Antoinette, she was a suitable bride to bring into the Hastings name. We first met at a party that Estelle hosted, where I was introduced to her as an old friend of my sister’s. I remembered how distinct she was by virtue of being taller than most women, but carrying herself with all the proper grace and poise. And how she dressed like she was from an earlier era, from a bygone time when things were perhaps simpler because they were seen through the lens of nostalgia. We spoke for most of that evening, and that had been the start.

I had been most careful in selecting our home. It was old, but without a history. No hidden passages, no strange things in the basement. The realtor was perplexed but accommodated my request that I stay there for two weeks, excusing it as “getting a feel for the place” before making a purchase. It was an unusual arrangement, I admit, but I wanted to find if there were any demons there before I brought myself and my wife Evelyn to live there. She was a good woman and I didn’t want to risk her being harmed by any potential demon that lingered in our home, not when I was in a better position than ever to prevent it.

The place focused on simplicity as a substitute for elegance. It was more to Evelyn’s tastes than mine. Plenty of space for a family, because we both agreed two children was a good number, and there were separate rooms for us to indulge our hobbies in. She had a voracious literary appetite and we shared a fondness for Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy’s short stories, though I disagreed with her amusement with the low-brow vernacular of Dashiel Hammett over the more refined works of Ernest Hemingway.

For a time, our life together was pleasant and easy. Neither of us demanded much of the other. She didn’t begrudge me my frequent business trips to address matters that my father once did, and I didn’t question her preference that we allow a young lady named Nancy to be her in-house secretary. The two were quite close and considered each other confidantes. IBoth of us understood that ours was not a love-match. We were never going to feel that strongly for one another, even if we were friends and got along well enough that attempts to sire children weren’t affairs of awkwardness.

Nancy and Evelyn were in the garden when I first saw the demon. It was a fetid thing, with limbs too long for the bulk of its hunched frame. Every inch of it was covered in a sickly green color, something that reminded me of those who had fallen ill or limbs gone gangrenous. Arms and legs were near-skeletal, but moved with a fluidness that made me think there were no bones within them. The tongue was long and forked, with each end able to slither about as if independent of the rest. Two pupils rested in each of its eyes, and each one looked in a different direction than the other. It didn’t even notice my presence, as if I wasn’t actually there balking in horror at the sight of it.

The sight of it left me cold and muttering to myself in refusal, as if denial was able to banish it when nothing else could. It lingered there, green-eyed and smiling, as it stood between my wife and her secretary. They couldn’t see it, even as it breathed a rancid, foul breath while the two of them talked. I saw Nancy taking notes like a dutiful secretary, with only the occasional pause to have some tea. I tried to focus on that as much as I could, or on Evelyn’s smile that brought light to any room she entered, rather than the fiend that deigned to put its seven-fingered, scrawling hands on their shoulders. I knew not which of them was the demon’s prey, but from the pit of my stomach to the heart that beat in my chest, I knew it was one of them. That certainty brought back the feelings of impotence I felt. It was only a matter of time before one or the other fell victim.

As time passed, I realized with a cold dread that the demon was never there whenever my wife or Nancy were alone or with me. Always, always, it appeared when I was in the distance and my wife and her secretary were discussing matters. But I knew better than to assume it haunted them and that my ability to see it was merely incidental. It was there to torment me by lingering close to my wife and her dear friend, and it’s dismissal of my presence was its way of taunting me at my impotence.

I sit here in my cell accused of their deaths, and the police would have you believe that I killed them in a fit of jealousy, that I suspected my wife was having an affair and her secretary helped hide it from me. Or perhaps she was the one my wife was having an affair with. They have made me sit here in this squalid prison cell with nothing but the barest of necessities, tried to take away my humanity, and even sent professionals to see if they could grasp some semblance of the truth from me. They say I strangled my wife and her secretary in their beds, that I’d seen the divorce papers on Evelyn’s desk and seeing them prompted me to assume the worst. The notion is as preposterous as my lowering myself to owning a haberdashery.

I had the motive and the means, and plenty of opportunity. They even say there is physical evidence. I do not dispute that I was at home when their deaths occured, but the demon killed them. Strangled them in their beds as they slept with those gangrenous appendages of monstrous strength. I am a gentleman, and I do not lay hands on the women in my life.

It is absurd! A travesty of justice! I never laid hands on those women, never wrapped my hands around their necks as I accused them of foul adultery. They were bosom friends and nothing more. The two of them had a closeness that was untouched by such vulgarity, and it was something I considered worthy of aspiring towards. Evelyn was a proper woman, and no proper woman would do the things the authorities claim motivated me to murder her.

Still, perhaps there is some positivity to be found in my situation. In this prison, far from anyone that I might come to care for and anything resembling a proper home, I have found peace. No demon will torment me here, despite the violence that abounds behind these walls.

But now, I ask you, having heard my tale, which do you prefer to believe? That a man of my standing murdered my brother Charles, my mother, my friend Simon, my wife Evelyn, and her secretary Nancy in cold blood? Or that I am haunted by demons?

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