I met the devil at the Crossroads of America.
I was fourteen. The last week of October that year, my father rounded up me and Mom and one carryon bag, stuffed with only a change of clothes for each of us and some toothpaste. We were confused, to say the least, at Dad’s sudden gusto for an impromptu road trip, and my mother balked at first: how could she explain this to the others at work?
“You’ve got sick days, don’tcha?” Dad had said. “Use ‘em or lose ‘em?”
I knew she was in the hole, as far as leave time went. She’d used up all her own (and a bunch more the other girls at work had donated to her) the year before.
But I kept my mouth shut. Being gone on Halloween meant I wouldn’t have to explain to my friends that I didn’t want to go trick-or-treating. I wouldn’t have to turn down any invitations to costume parties. All Hallows’ Eve had lost its luster for me.
We were aimless. Stopping at greasy-spoons for lukewarm meals, taking sulky photos at hokey tourist traps and bathroom breaks at rest stops – sleeping in pest-ridden motels or, some nights, in the car. Mom and Dad had both taken up talking in their sleep in recent months. Their uncensored consciousness spewing up restless laments, angers, melancholies. In the mornings I’d swear to them, bleary-eyed and hoarse, that I’d slept just fine while I took big chugs of Dad’s dark roast.
They barely spoke all this time. But that wasn’t new.
On the thirty-first of October we crossed the state line into Indiana. Dad shook me awake to announce our arrival, almost giddy.
“Here we are, Gert,” he said. “Crossroads of America.”
I knew Dad had grown up in a rural part of the Hoosier State. Some Podunk town that still didn’t even have paved roads. But he never spoke of it fondly, never let a smile sneak across his chin when IU won a championship game or Breaking Away came on the Sunday afternoon movie slot. But now he rolled the windows down and breathed in the autumn air as though he’d been underwater for ages.
“Getting close,” he said.
Mom looked up from her Anne Rice. “Close to what?”
Dad looked at her like she’d just appeared in the passenger seat. He pushed the sunglasses up the bridge of his nose and shrugged. Mom returned to her novel and we racked up a few more hours’ quiet time. I didn’t slip back into my nap. Something was going to happen when we got to wherever Dad was taking us. It was in the way his face screwed up when Mom asked her question; I saw it, too, in how he bunched his shoulders in and never quite relaxed or loosened his grip on the wheel once we rolled into his old stomping ground.
The sun revealed an approaching mass of black clouds before setting, and by nightfall we were caught in a total downpour. Sheets of rain splattered against the windshield faster than our poor car’s wipers could slap it away. From my place in the back seat I could feel Dad and his foot and the steering wheel cede control of the vehicle to Mother Nature. But we didn’t slow down.
Mom suggested once, weakly, that we find a place to pull over. Dad waved her off.
“This’ll blow over,” he said.
“Any minute now.”
An hour later, the storm carried on, and we passed a road sign I couldn’t decipher through the dark and the wet. Dad’s road atlas told me we’d made it to Greene County, for whatever that was worth.
Dad checked his watch and tapped the clock on the dash. He said lamely, “Clock’s slow.” Our eyes met for an instant in the rearview mirror and he promptly reached up and turned it away from my gaze.
Just as Mom’s incipient snores had begun to evolve into somber murmuring, I felt the car slow. My head snapped forward and back into the seat as we stopped for the first time since dinner. Dad tapped Mom’s knee.
“Hey,” he said. “Hey, check it out.” He looked back at me and gave a smile that looked like it cost him a thousand bucks.
“Honey, look,” he said. Mom yawned and pressed her nose against the passenger side window. Blotches of her gray breath spread across the glass. When she turned away there was a small hole, dead center in the random pattern. An eye in a storm.
“What am I looking at?” she said.
“C’mon,” Dad said, unbuckling his seatbelt. “Don’t you remember?” He reached over and cranked down the window on her side. She yelped and leaned back to avoid the incoming splatter of rain.
“Mark!” she said, clutching his arm.
“Look again,” was all he said.
Pressed against him, she squinted out the window. A moment for her eyes to adjust and the faintest hint of a grin tickled her mouth. I took off my own seatbelt listening to her say, “The drive-in?”
“The drive-in,” my father said.
I cranked the window down where I sat, as far as it would allow, and curled my fingers over its rim. It felt like dunking my hand in a bucket of ice water. I peered through the columns of rainwater falling from the sky and could make out, just, a lone steel structure some dozens of yards away. Jutting there from the earth like it was old as the dirt itself, a concrete-and-metal trapezoid stood as tall as two houses, draped at its bottom by a hula skirt of weeds and overgrowth.
“What is it?” I asked.
“An old drive-in theater,” Mom said.
“Your mom and I,” Dad said, “we had our first date here.”
They didn’t look at each other, but I sensed a fleeting warmth between them I hadn’t seen in a year. I’d waited so long for a sign of anything other than gloom between the pair of them that I would have, under other circumstances, reveled in this. But I couldn’t, or I forgot to. I thought, maybe it’s this rain, or maybe I’m just tired, but something would not allow me to appreciate the moment. Something in me cried, run.
I looked out again. The wafer-thin pyramid in the field groaned against the wind. The screen side shot straight up into the air; the back had a sloping angle that made it seem to lean against its opposite, like one friend weeping into another’s shoulder. Facing the road – facing us – wedged between the high walls and miniscule in comparison was a metallic door blemished with rust, set into the concrete that held the whole thing aloft.
I found myself staring at the metal threshold, caught myself thinking: I don’t like you.
The structure wailed and squealed back.
Dad reached back a hand, clapped my shin. I jumped.
“Hey, Gert,” he said. “Throw us the umbrella, would you?”
The closest thing to a smile my mother had worn in months receded. “You’re not going out there?” she said.
“Well, sure,” Dad said. He had one hand pressed into the empty seat at my side, holding himself up as he rooted under the seats for an umbrella I had neglected to locate.
“There we go,” he said, popping the snap that held the fabric closed. “Well, c’mon, gang. What do you say we take in a picture show?”
“You’re out of your mind!” Mom said, only half-joking. “This place is derelict; it must have closed twenty years ago.” She rolled up her window. “Come on, Mark. The only thing we’ll catch out there is our death of cold. Let’s find a nice place to stay, watch a real movie there?”
“Yeah,” I said. The maintenance door that ran perpendicular to the screen glistened where it could, between our headlights and the rain. “Let’s go.”
Dad’s wrist flew up toward his nose again with another cursory glance at his watch. “Hey,” he said. The humor in his voice was hard-won. “We didn’t come out all this way to get run off by a little rain, did we?”
“I don’t know what we came out here for,” said Mom. “And if you keep up this dodgy, cloak-and-dagger nonsense, my butt isn’t leaving this dry seat.”
“Damn it!” Dad balled up a fist, pounded it on the steering wheel. The car horn let out a weak burp of a honk. He slapped the dash. “Just…!” His forehead fell onto the wheel. “Please,” he said. I could see tendons in his neck tighten, ripple, bulge.
Through the cracks of the drive-in tower came a low whistle. The umbrella lay against Dad’s thigh, teetering over the edge of the bucket seat.
I thought, Let it fall.
Let’s go let’s go.
And then Mom picked it up, gripped the handle and said what I knew she would say, and I hated her. I couldn’t help hating her.
“Okay,” she said. “You win.”
She stepped out, the now open umbrella leading her. She opened my door and extended a hand. I pictured swatting at that hand, biting it, chopping it off with an axe – but instead I took it, locked fingers with it, let it pull me into the night and into the rain.
The scant light we had vanished with a flicker. Dad had shut off the car and the headlights with it.
Dad, unconcerned with the rain and already soaked through his polo shirt and khakis, took long strides a few feet ahead of us. Under the pretense of sharing the umbrella, I pressed up against Mom and let us fall behind. But it didn’t matter. We kept moving, knee-high weeds brushing our legs, the screen tower looming larger with every step.
“C’mon, you two!” Dad called, not looking back. “Showtime!”
My mother squeezed my arm – for my comfort or hers, I couldn’t say – and kept moving. My feet squelched in the muddy ooze, nearly giving up a shoe more than once. The screen tower and that horrible rusted door appeared to be drawing closer to us, instead of us to them. I expended real energy into not looking at the structure or its opening. I’d focus on Mom’s hand, the dull rock set into her wedding ring or the fray on the cuff of her jeans. But my eye kept straying back to that door, that portal to… what?
Hoping to give logic control over my emotions, I asked myself what was so scary about a stupid door on an old, rundown movie shack. So what, Gert? I thought, in that manner of thinking that is forced and false, the kind of thought that can only drown out the inveterate instinct of the subconscious for a flickering moment. So what? Nobody’s been in that old shed for years. Nothing scary about it. Dad’s having fun; don’t ruin it for him. He never has fun.
But behind the loudspeaker voice of internal reasoning, something softer but nastier pulled me down, held my gaze on the door as Dad strode past it through the weeds, and I understood. That sense of wrongness, of something being off.
The tall grass all around us, the ragged growth that enveloped the foundation of the structure – they lay flat in a defined quarter-circle shape where the door would swing open and shut.
I swallowed air and wrapped both arms around my mother’s.
“Can we go?” I could hardly hear my own voice.
“Soon,” Mom said. She yanked on the umbrella, a sudden burst of wind having attempted to abscond with it. “Your father’s cooked some weird thing up. Let him have this. Smile. Play nice.” She stared ahead at Dad, who was just finding a spot in the mud and the overgrowth to sit down cross-legged. “He’s trying,” she said, “but my God.”
My father – placid, impervious to the cold and the rain – adjusted his seating in the grass and the slop, folded his hands in his lap. He looked up at the screen, smiled, and turned to us, yards away.
“Well?” he said.
Mom and I exchanged glances. She squeezed my forearm and nodded. Some primal part of me still pushed me to flee, but little civilized Gertrude ignored the inclination and matched my mother step for step. Taking shallow sips of air, I plopped down with a splat next to Dad and let him put a warm, paternal arm around me. Pressed against him in a hug, I could feel his pulse hammering, too.
“What are we doing, Dad?”
“Shh.” He took the finger at his lips and drew it in an upward diagonal to point at the screen. “Watch.”
We were close enough that the blank wall enveloped my entire field of vision. Seams showed where quick-fix patches had been slapped on over the years. At the top corners ivy spread down like tentacles.
Mom whispered, “Mark?”
Then – like a light switching on in a basement – the screen illuminated, blinding us. I held up my arm to shield my eyes from the sheer power of it and grimaced at the sting of my sight adjusting.
I heard Mom: “What the hell?”
Dad said nothing.
Squinting, I slowly lowered my arm, and at the sound of my mother’s pained gasp I pried my eyelids apart. The moving picture on the screen, as it traveled back to us, seemed to get tangled in the thin ropes of water shooting down from the sky. Even through the downpour the familiar image was unmistakable. The out-of-fashion tan couch, floor-hugging coffee table, the wood-paneled TV set and ugly multi-color rug. Arranged just so – just as I remembered.
Our old house, my first home. Before everything.
On the screen, the setting shifted and rocked clumsily – the camera moving – and suddenly my mother’s face, ten years younger, filled the screen. Blowing up her features to the width of a house did her no favors; I could hear her recoil and scoff on the other side of Dad. All I could see, though, was what was missing: wrinkles not yet formed, no cloudiness in her eyes to keep me out.
The shrill blast of a falsetto squeal, coming from a speaker system I now realized I couldn’t see or explain, nearly knocked me over. And just like that, little toddler me – itsy-bitsy Gert – wobbled onscreen, hugging her mother’s leg and smearing a fudgesicle all over her jeans in the process.
“I remember this,” I said – or, I don’t know. No one reacted to the sound of my voice; perhaps my mouth moved and nothing came out.
We were watching one of our old home videos. I hadn’t seen it in years, but when I was younger I’d periodically beg my parents to dig these little tapes out of the attic, plug the camcorder into the VCR and play them back. We’d often make a night of it. Of course, all that was before. Our old house, our old lives.
On the screen, younger Mom was frantically rubbing a spit-wettened napkin over the chocolate-smudged knee of her pants. The booming thunder of video Dad’s amplified chuckles rumbled in my chest.
I turned. “Dad,” I said. “What—?”
Then I saw Mom’s face. Her mouth just slightly open, eyes wide and lifeless, her fingertips just barely touching her cheek. It was a look of total horror; if you’d just shown me a picture of that expression I might have guessed she was watching a scary movie, or that she’d see a ghost.
But that’s when I remembered the rest of the tape. What was coming next.
On the screen, in our former living room, little me draped over younger Mom’s shoulder. The camera swooped to the left nauseatingly and came to rest on the silhouetted figure of another child, a little bigger and older, framed at the edge of the hallway that opened up into the den.
The kid on the screen, rendered at eight feet tall for this audience of three, stepped out of the poor lighting of the hall and into the full view of the camera.
There was David.
“Are you taking my picture?” His voice blasted across the empty field, from nowhere and from everywhere, at an earsplitting volume. My big brother’s question, frozen in time, echoed back to us from every direction. I could imagine the words as living, slithering creatures, winding their way like snakes through the grass toward us and into our ears.
“I didn’t say you could take my picture!” The sound of a hundred giggling eight-year-old boys, all with my brother’s voice, enclosed us in an invisible circle. It drew the three of us closer together. Pressed against him I could feel that Dad’s pulse was no longer pounding but almost at rest, resigned. Mom let out a faint, single sob through the rain and the booming theater sound.
The projected specter of David mugged and posed on screen. Behind the camera my Dad laughed ten years before, and so we heard him now, canned and preserved, so loud I pressed palms against my ears.
“Mark,” Mom whispered. I think she meant me not to hear. “Mark, for God’s sake, why…?”
It occurred to me then that this could justifiably be considered an act of cruelty. I had been too mystified, too uncomfortable to think of it that way. But Mom was traumatized.
The screen turned blue for a second, then the tape jumped ahead a few months.
Now it showed us David riding a bike. The one grandma got him for his birthday. He still had on a party hat – and the Mom in the video was chasing him down the street, waving his helmet.
Next to me, my father sat stock still as his flesh-and-blood wife buried her face into the crook of his neck and tugged at his damp shirt sleeve.
Clip after clip of David – in the dugout at a baseball game, playing euchre with me, dancing with Mom at some cousin’s wedding – flickered on that ancient screen wall. The grime of age, the dark and the weather, and something less tangible worked together to render every snippet through a gray and cold, joyless filter. It wouldn’t stop. I wasn’t sure that anyone, even Dad, could stop it now.
Something stung the back of my throat and I knew I was going to vomit. I leaned away from my father, palms in the grass, and retched.
“Gert?” Dad put his hand on my back.
“Turn it off,” I said. I spit up some more. Dad’s hand didn’t move, but neither did he answer me.
I whirled my head up and around and snatched that hand by the wrist, squeezing, pleading. I screamed: “Turn if off!”
His face, flat and stoic up to now, curdled into something weak, beaten and frightened. Turned toward me, his eyes drifted and darted back to the screen. I was not enough to hold his attention, not with what was happening up there.
Mom had succumbed to the weight of it all, lying on her side, shivering. She made no sound; she may have appeared asleep to someone just walking up.
“Why are you doing this, Dad?” I said. “What were you thinking? Just turn it off.”
He took a shuddering breath. His eyes were glued to the morbid picture show. “I can’t,” he said.
“I didn’t turn it on.”
My first thought was that I’d misheard him. He changed colors in the swirling light of the projection. He had nothing else to say.
The rain slowed to a drizzle in a matter of seconds, like someone in the sky had tightened a valve. Then even the slow drip stopped and the sky dried out, taking with it the constant patter, leaving us with only the roaring soundtrack of our unwelcome memories.
Beneath that noise, something lower, something worse. A faint scrape, or tearing, ahead of us, a little to the left. Like a deer being skinned, a dog biting into something dead.
The old metal door on the side of the screen tower building opened, pulling out weeds and grass with its jagged bottom lip. Dim, putrid maroon light spilled out from within, reminding me of a darkroom – or of the pulsing insides of something alive.
Framed in the red light – not unlike David’s figure backlit in the hallway from that first home video – stood the blotted out shape of a person exactly as tall as the door and its threshold. A centimeter taller and whoever it was would have had to lower its head to exit.
Instead, it briskly swept forward, like a paper doll taped to a stick. I clenched, held my breath, watched. Dad put a few inches between us, his warmth and touch leaving an essential comfort, killing a piece of me with its sudden break.
The shadow, perception and sense told me, should have been illuminated and its features revealed by now, as close as it had come and as bathed as it was in the stagnant film screen’s glow. But it remained a dark blur just long enough to exude an unearthly quality, cheating, bending laws of nature.
My hand slipped; I touched something vile, slimy. Of course. My throw-up. I scooted back, quivering, gnawing the insides of my mouth.
The thing strode right to us. Blue artificial light and the white shimmer of the moon spilled over it to reveal in gray, necrotic hues the smiling, droopy-eyed face of a man. The folds at the corners of his upturned lips seemed to house crevices miles deep. Fingers laced together over his oily-spotted Oxford shirt, he came to rest with the toes of his boots nearly touching my own feet. He lowered his head until the salt-and-pepper beard on his chin bunched up against his chest and sucked air in through the gap of his front teeth.
“Forgive me my tardiness,” he said. “All this goddamn rain.”
He tucked a hand into his black blazer and from it withdrew a bath towel. It seemed too big to have been stuffed in his jacket like that, and kept coming. He dropped it to land delicate on my bent knees. The smell of mildew scraped the insides of my nose. I adjusted my legs to let the towel drop to the grass.
The man nodded at my father. “Mr. Hempstead,” he said.
Like a dog, or a terrified subordinate to his overbearing boss, my father scrambled to stand and shake the man’s hand. I thought I saw him wince when their palms touched.
“Vee,” he said.
I thought that was what he said.
Mom stood up now, too. Not to shake the stranger’s hand, but to put some distance between him and her.
“Mark,” she said, “what the hell is going on?”
The man wrapped long fingers around my father’s shoulder. “Oh, hell,” he said. “You must think me terribly rude. Though,” he cocked his head toward Dad, “one would assume some prior explanation. How long was the drive again? Christ, Mark.” He jabbed Dad in the ribs without humor.
Mom, in one feral move, grabbed my hand and yanked me up and into a protective embrace. “I want to know what this is!”
Her voice, for all its power and anguish, emitted no echo.
Dad fidgeted out of the man’s grasp and joined me and Mom in a defensive trifecta. “Please, Vee,” he said. “Just give me a minute.”
One bushy eyebrow floated to the top of the man’s head. After a long silence he gave one nod and said, “Of course. I’ll be inside.”
And the man called V made his strange way back to the screen, through the door into its concrete barracks.
“Let’s go,” I said. “Daddy, I want to go.” I hadn’t called him “Daddy” in ages.
“Now, hang on,” Dad said.
I pounded my fist against his side. “I want to go!”
Mom tightened her grip on me. “Mark,” she said, “I think it would be best.”
“Just a fucking second!”
“The man,” Dad thumbed back at the screen, “says he can help us. Does it all the time, he says.” Two sets of thumbs and forefingers found Mom’s and my chins. “Don’t you think it’s worth hearing him out?”
“Help us what?” I asked.
“Move on,” Mom said. I looked up at her. She was staring at the now-empty, dead movie screen. Dad joined her in doing so. “That’s what this is, right?” she asked. “Some twisted psychotherapy thing? So we can, what, forget David?”
“No!” Dad whipped around to face us again. “Not forget David. Just…” He hugged himself. “Just the pain.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What’s he going to do?”
“I’m not sure,” Dad said, the sound of his speech guttural, careful. “But don’t you think we should find out?”
My stomach turned again. Whatever was left inside it wanted out, too. I pressed my mother’s hand against my cheek. “Mom?” I said.
“The hypnosis. The counseling. The prayer groups,” Dad said. “How is this any different? It’s worth a shot, right?”
Mom wiped either rainwater or a tear from my face with her thumb. With her other hand she ran fingers through my sopping hair. Finally, she said, “Mark, I swear to God: if he tries to hurt Gerty I will kill him with my bare hands.”
“I wouldn’t bring you out here if I thought—”
“With my bare hands.”
Dad held up his palms. “Okay,” he said. “That’s fine.”
“Who is he?”
A little chirp came out of Dad’s throat. “Vee?” he said. “Just a guy.”
“How’d you meet?”
“Look,” Dad said. “I put a lot of work into this thing because I thought he could help. We came all this way, and he doesn’t just see anybody. This is a privilege.”
Mom looked Dad over, head to toe and back. Her eyes fell shut. She nodded. Then she gave my hand a soft tug and said, “C’mon, honey. Let’s see what the man has to say.”
All I could think was No, no, God oh please no. But I went with them anyway. They were my parents. They were heartbroken. They had lost a child. All they had was me.
I had to.
Together we marched toward the screen tower. The formation, the pace, the weight of our steps gave me a sullen déjà vu I tried to forget.
Dad wrapped his fingers around the rusted knob of the old metal door. I fought the instinct to grab his arm and yank it away. Veins bulged as he pulled with a good deal of effort on the thing. The odd sucking sound of a vacuum being broken resounded when the door finally gave way. It creaked – no, wailed – on neglected hinges and scraped along the earth and growth, killing the few remaining blades of grass left in the wake of its swath.
The red light inside the tower painted us as horror film creatures. Fitting, I guess.
We stepped in.
The man my father called V was seated at a small, wobbling desk on pencil-thin legs, reading a copy of Life, for all the world like he had forgotten about us completely. He finished the sentence he was on, dog-eared the page and closed the magazine with slow deliberation before pivoting and beaming up at us.
“Please,” he said, “come in, come in.” He stood; his chair did not scoot back on the rough flooring and instead fell over onto its back with a clatter.
As a unit, my family took three short steps closer, deeper into the structure. It was sort of like a garage. Smelled like one – one with a rodent problem. I wondered for a second if Mr. V had been taking his bathroom breaks in here.
My train of thought cut short at a bizarre scraping coming from the far corner of the room. As if it were avoiding something unpleasant, the light did not reach that corner. Something – an eye, I thought – glinted, a white pinprick in the black there.
V snapped his fingers. “Now,” he said, our attentions returned to him for the moment, “before we begin, do you have any questions for me?”
Mom and Dad both hung back, breathing heavy. For them, I asked: “Does it work?”
“Does what work?” V gave me the same condescending smile I’d seen plastered across the faces of so many out-of-touch adults before.
“Whatever it is you do,” I said. “Does it really make losing David not… hurt anymore?”
He nodded. In here, even his crooked teeth looked blood-soaked.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “No more tears. Guaranteed.” He held up two fingers pressed together.
Mom suddenly found her voice. She stepped in front of me and said, “But why? Why did you have to show those…” Her shoulders slouched. “Those tapes? And why here?”
Lower lip jutted, V nodded in understanding, in sympathy. “Right,” he said. “Well, for this to work, those nasty memories have to be bubbling and brewing right at the surface, I’m afraid.” He stretched out his arms and swiveled at the torso. “As for why here – you may laugh or deride, but let’s just say that some places are… special… and leave it at that, hmm?”
Mom looked back at Dad. “I don’t know,” she said.
“We can leave any time,” said Dad. “Just hear him out first.”
“Oh, yes,” said V. “You’re free to go. In fact, this is only going to work if you want it. Nobody’s dragging anybody kicking and screaming.”
Mom drew back, arms at her sides. “What do we do?” she said.
V smiled. “I want you to meet someone,” he said. He took a candle from the table and a lighter, set the wick aflame. With that same mystifying stride he went to the far corner of the room. As he approached, the wet scuttling sound began anew, louder and with a new quality.
The candlelight danced and pulsed on the cinderblock. I saw nothing at first, but then realized I was looking too high. The latest addition to this scene was crouched on the floor, and the first I saw of it was a long tangle of black hair, matted and oily, so long it draped against the floor. Behind the curtain of pitch locks peered one sparkling eye. Fingers capped with long, thick nails scraped and searched the concrete ground without purpose.
I was reminded – ridiculously – of a long-ago visit to a zoo, looking through glass at a chimpanzee. The thing that V illuminated with his flame was simian, to an extent. Naked, gray, with drooping lifeless breasts and arms much too long for a human. It breathed wet, gurgling gulps of air and hacked, sniffling and chittering.
Mr. V rested a hand atop the thing’s head.
“This is my friend,” he said. “She goes by many names, but I won’t speak them here. But she can help you.”
The thing coughed again, spraying the floor and V’s boots.
“And you can help her, I believe.”
I turned away. My feet carried me in the direction of the exit, no thought necessary. But a hand on my shoulder stopped me.
He said nothing. But the message was delivered.
I heard Mom, soft and pathetic: “God above.”
And my father, he actually took a step closer. Leaving me there, shivering, back turned, sick. “What can we do?” he asked. “What do you need?”
“She’s malnourished,” said V. I dared a look back over my shoulder. He crouched and held out his light. It flickered against the thing’s lined and haggard face, shot slippery streams of yellow up the slick of its hair. “She needs sustenance.” He looked toward my father. “That’s where you come in.”
Mom leaned against the table. It buckled, and she thought better of it, forced herself to stand. “I don’t understand.”
“My friend here,” said V, straightening up, coming back to us, “has a unique diet. It’s not fruits and veggies, not meat or water she craves.”
He snuffed out the light. Curls of smoke swooped and faded above. “You three have something in you she requires. That something, Mr. Hempstead here says, you want rid of. This, then, would be a symbiotic transaction. You give it willingly and she will live. You don’t, and… well, she won’t last long, I’m afraid.”
The inhuman thing panted wetly and I thought, Good. Letting it die would be a favor to the world.
“So,” V said, unbuttoning his crusty blazer, “should we begin?”
Mom squeezed my hand. I pulled and shuffled my feet with intentional volume. When she opened her mouth to speak, I waited for her parting words and thought of the car waiting for us outside, and how nice a warm and dry and safe motel room would be.
But instead she said, “What do I do?”
I dropped her hand.
V wrapped an arm around her neck and cleared his throat. “This way,” he said. “Mind your step.”
“She doesn’t…” Mom said, and sniffed. “I mean, is it safe?”
“She won’t bite.”
Dad hung back, a statue, and I watched through the gap of his arm and hip while Mom and the drive-in man took agonizing, small steps toward the thing wallowing in the damp dark. Its breathing accelerated, grew into an anticipatory, hungry snarl. A low hum came out of Mom.
“Darlin’,” said the man to his friend, “this is Mrs. Hempstead. She’s got something for you.”
The creature, woman, abomination – it pressed back against the wall, mewling. It sounded scared, whining in anxiety.
“Your son,” said V. “How did you lose him?”
Mom’s voice, crackling and quiet: “Car accident.” A staccato inhale. “Last Halloween.”
“You hear that?” the man said. But his companion was already rising feebly, shaking, reaching for my mother. It stepped forward to bask in the red otherworldly light, a strand of spittle dangling from its gray sagging lips.
“Think of David,” said V. “She will take care of the rest.”
“Wait…” Mom said. But V had stepped back, and the thing already had its gnarled fingers on either side of her face, using her for balance to stand erect. A high-pitched, airy whistle blew from its mouth and nose. A purple, tattered tongue flopped from its lips and hung like a dishrag clutched in its few remaining teeth.
Mom’s arms went out; she pitched and pulled back, struggling, but the thing tightened its grip, pulled her forward, immune to her moans of protest.
“Dad…” I said.
“Don’t look,” was his only response.
I couldn’t turn away, though, not now. The creature pressed its forehead against my mother’s, its slick sheet of black hair wrapping around my mother’s head as if they shared a scalp. A sound of a gale, a condensed tornado, swirled from the thing’s lungs as it drew a deep breath. Mom’s body went slack. Something like gray smoke – but it didn’t behave or move like smoke – climbed out of the orifices of my mother’s head and hung in the air above them. It wriggled, amorphous, and I thought it looked alive. Not just alive, but fighting for life. Trying to escape. Like a frog when you catch it, or a cat that doesn’t want to be cuddled anymore.
Then the gray swirl lost its fight and was pulled in a single movement into the thing’s mouth.
It let go of my mother. She fell in a heap on the floor.
The creature loosened, slumped but still upright. It wiped its mouth with the back of a leathery hand.
It looked at me.
“Very good, very good,” V said. He bent over Mom, pulled her up and moved her to the side, propped against the wall. She murmured and coughed once.
“Is she hurt?” Dad said, though he didn’t move to inspect for himself. He hung back with me – like me, immobile, paralyzed.
“She’ll sleep,” V said. “But her dreams, if she dreams, will not be ones of loss or sadness. When she thinks of your son, she will not feel pain. David will haunt her no longer.”
“So she’ll be happy?”
V looked offended, eyebrows drawn together in one thick line. “I never said that,” he said. “I said I would take her sadness away. I never said I could replace it.” He pointed at my unconscious mother. “Your wife will have to create her own happiness. If she can’t, or if she won’t, if she feels nothing for the rest of her days. That’s not my fault. Not my responsibility.”
Then he clapped his hands, rubbed them together. “So,” he said. “Who’s next?”
Dad lowered his chin and squatted a little, to meet my eye. “Honey,” he said. “I know this is… I know this seems strange.” He kissed my cheek. “But you’ll feel better, when it’s over. We can all go home and feel better.”
“What if I don’t want to?” I whispered.
V heard me anyway and interjected. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” he said. “You and I, young lady, we have no bargain.”
“So, then,” Dad said, rising, “we’re done here?”
“No, Mark.” V came closer, seemed to grow six inches in the process. “Your daughter and I have no bargain. You and I do. You will nourish my friend here.”
Dad took a step back. “I’m not sure I can, Mr. Vee. I’m sorry, I…” He looked at Mom, still sleeping, still dreaming empty dreams. “I don’t think I can.”
“Mr. Hempstead,” V said. He swooped close, crooked a finger and threaded it into my father’s shirt collar, tugging. “There will not be a discussion. Now come.”
“No,” Dad said. He pushed V away. “No.” He went over to Mom, folded her limp arms around himself, hoisted her up. “We… we’re going. I’m sorry.”
In one movement, V closed the gap between himself and Dad, struck him with the back of his hand, and sent him and Mom to the ground.
“Sweetheart,” V said, stooped over my parents but boring his small eyes into me, “you might not want to be here for what happens next.”
I stared at him.
He shouted. “Go!”
And that was the trigger that snapped me out of my trance. My body sprung, without thought, twisting around and shooting out the door. I heard Dad, softly – “Gert!” – but didn’t, couldn’t look back.
The rusted door wailed and groaned, booming shut behind me although I hadn’t touched it, not that I recall. Nettles scraped my shins and the mud finally did claim one of my shoes during my sprint to the car. I threw the door open and lay on the floorboard in the backseat. Finally, tears flowed freely from my eyes. Sobs quaked my lungs and stomach. I folded elbows over my face and bit down on my arm. I lay there a long time, waiting, thinking no further ahead than the next instant, no plan of escape or rescue forming.
After a long time, I fell asleep.
I awoke to the sound of tapping on the window. The door opened before I could react. There stood V, framed by the box that opened out of the car and into the cold world.
He leaned in, held out a hand that I did not take, withdrew it. “Your dad is fine,” he said. “Your mom, too. But I’m afraid they’re still a bit groggy, and will be for a while yet.” He twisted at the hip, looked out toward the horizon where the faintest glow of dawn was creeping up from the grass.
“Morning soon,” he said. “I’m sorry, but you can’t stay.”
His hand flung back into the car and hung over me. Something shiny jingled in his thumb and pointer: the car keys.
“Your daddy ever teach you?”
I shook my head.
“Well,” he sighed. “Guess what, kiddo? You just graduated driver’s ed.”
The keys fell in a small muffled plop on my stomach, and he was gone.
When I did exit the car, I found Mom and Dad a few yards away, curled up in a deep sleep in the grass. Dad had some scrapes and bruises I thought better than to ponder over. Moving them was so difficult I actually thought to find Mr. V and ask for help to get them into the vehicle, but he was nowhere to be found. Not inside the screen tower, not lurking around outside it. I could not bring myself to enter the structure again or face the now well-fed creature who called it home, but part of me knew that even if I did go poking around in there, I wouldn’t find it, not now.
After some time and much struggle, I managed to get my limp ragdolls of parents into the backseat of the car. I started it and did my best to emulate the motions of putting it into drive, tested the gas and the brakes. During the very slow and nervous drive that proceeded, neither Mom nor Dad made a peep. The mumblings and moans of unfiltered despair that had riddled their sleep for months had been silenced.
Hours later we were parked in a motel parking lot where I had to wait on my parents for several hours to stir and get their bearings well enough to groggily check us in. And there we stayed for two days.
There wasn’t much conversation for the rest of that road trip. No discussion, certainly, of what had happened at the old drive-in theater – no mention of David, nothing beyond short, pointless pleasantries.
In the intervening years we have yet to speak of what happened that night. My parents may not even remember it, for all I know. Sometimes I think I dreamed it, hallucinated it, created the memory from nothing but some visceral nasty recess of my own dark imagination.
But just when I think I may have lost my mind at the age of fourteen, on a cold and rainy Halloween night, I sometimes dare to mention my brother to them.
And they may smile faintly, or nod just once, or say, “Oh, yes, David. What a good boy he was,” and return to whatever it is they were doing before. Watching television, or folding laundry, or setting the dinner table. Like they’d just been reminded of an old pleasant story, one that doesn’t matter anymore.
I look for those old home movies sometimes, when I visit. The tapes in the attic. But where they once were, there are now only boxes of dusty Christmas decorations, unused kitchenware and old toys. I have only my memories, only a deep dull pang of precious sadness that I will cling to, that I may share with no one.
And I will keep clinging.
I will starve the beast.