A kid…in a costume. It had to be.
Still, it was frightening. To think I almost hit the poor little guy.
Maybe it was a good thing that the costume was so good, so convincing. The sickly yellow glow-in-the-dark contacts. The pro-quality fang fixtures. That tail that almost looked as if it were whipping back and forth on its own. I thought it was some animal I’d almost hit. That would have been bad enough. If I’d known it was a kid, I might have panicked and lost control of the car. Maybe I would have hit him.
But Halloween was days ago. Was some kid having his last hurrah? Loved his costume so much, he decided to keep wearing it?
It was enough to convince me that I had just done my last double-overtime shift. Never again. I felt drained of all feeling, thought, emotion, and energy. I was a walking husk, as I tossed my keys on the coffee table, and gave a slurred-voiced apology to my dog and cat for their late dinners and their empty water bowls. They’d eaten all the treats I’d left for them, poor guys.
I didn’t think I could sleep. It was that kind of tired. The kind of tired where my body was so used to going and going that it was stuck in high gear, having a hard time winding down.
Times like that, my best bet was to settle down on the couch and turn the TV on to something I wouldn’t mind falling asleep to on the couch. The guys knew the score. I had two sets of pet beds for them, one in the bedroom and one in the living room. They wolfed down their suppers and I dragged myself upstairs to the bedroom to grab my pajamas. If I was going to be waking up on the couch the next morning, I could at least be semi-comfortable.
Ever since I’d had a friend over who forgot to lock the sliding glass door in the bedroom after she’d had her smoke on the balcony, I periodically checked the door, even if no one had used it. It had become an absent habit. The blinds were drawn, so I always had to sweep a few to the side to check on the lock.
I grabbed my pajamas with one hand and swept aside the blinds to check on the lock with the other when something caught my eye. At first, I thought it was a reflection. But I glanced down and saw someone standing on the other side of the sliding glass door. Half my height with softly glowing yellow eyes and clawed hands pressed against the glass. At the same time, Flynn started barking downstairs.
I cried out and backed away. I almost tripped over Nox who hissed, maybe in protest at almost getting trampled, or maybe because she saw something too. Her back was arched, her hackles raised, and she glared at the balcony door. The blinds had fallen back into place, and they swung slightly back and forth. I turned on the balcony lights, and turned off the bedroom lights, so I could see better. It took me a minute to work up the courage to check outside, and of course there was nothing, no one. I walked out onto the balcony. I looked over the rail. There was nothing. No one.
When I went back inside, I triple-checked the balcony doors, checked all the other locks in the house, checked in all cupboards and closets, closed all vents, watched the animals for any sign that they sensed something, and settled down cautiously on the couch. If there were any further incidents that night, assuming what I’d seen was real to begin with, I wouldn’t have known. The very act of lying down on the couch and tossing a throw over one of my legs was enough of a signal to my already drained body that it was now time for rest. A sudden and intense drowse overcame me.
The next day was a Saturday. Even if I hadn’t gotten in late from work, I would have stayed up late one way or another, and woken up late. I still felt drained, as if I hadn’t really rested while I slept. Considering the strange dreams I’d had about demonic-looking creatures with glowing eyes, it was no wonder. Whenever I was that tired, I usually only hallucinated about seeing bugs crawling around out of the corner of my eye. I’d never seen a vision so vivid.
It must have been something more than a vision. Maybe the kid in a costume had climbed up onto the balcony to take his revenge for almost getting mowed down. Maybe I could find out who it was so I could apologize and make amends before he vandalized my property. I went out on the balcony to check for signs of any…activity. There was nothing.
I spent the day dragging myself through a few chores. Then I decided to try and relax, do some reading, give my eyes a break from glowing screens. It occurred to me that maybe there was no kid. Maybe my vision and my dreams were trying to send me a mundane public service announcement about not watching too much TV, or surfing the internet, and all that, using not-so-mundane imagery. I fell asleep reading and by the time I woke, it was early evening.
After dinner, I actually felt somewhat refreshed and rested from that afternoon nap. So I decided to take Flynn for a walk in the park. I’d skipped the last two Saturdays, so he was extra excited when he saw the leash. I sensed a momentarily flash of jealousy in him, when I let Nox out without a leash. She would wander around and find her way back home. She would usually be waiting for us.
I still hadn’t gotten used to it getting dark so soon, but the park was well-lit and there were plenty of people still around. That soon changed as it got colder and colder. I’d had the foresight to bring my heavy coat, but had forgotten my gloves. There was a pet friendly café on the other side of the park, so I kept on walking, dreaming of wrapping my frigid hands around a hot mug of mocha. Flynn didn’t seem to mind the cold. But he would probably be glad to see some of his buddies when we got to the café.
We were making our way through a part of the park where the trees were thick and the path was rough. It felt more like forest than park. I got an eerie feeling and started jogging toward the next streetlamp, when Flynn suddenly stopped and started barking. I heard another bark from somewhere, answering Flynn’s, but that other bark seemed so far away. I wanted to go to it. I tugged at Flynn’s leash, but he held fast and kept barking. I wrapped my arm around his neck and tried to pull him forward. Suddenly, he stopped barking and started shivering and whimpering. I glanced around and saw nothing. I tugged him in the other direction, back towards the way we’d come, but he still wouldn’t budge. He just shivered. He was too big for me to carry, but I started wondering if I could do it.
I’d seen Flynn scared before, but that was at the vet. He may not have known he was going to be okay, but I did. So I never realized before just how troubling it was to see him shivering and hear him whimpering until I too, alone in the middle of a dark forest, didn’t know what was to come. I tried to tell myself he was cold and that was all. I keep tugging at him, but he would not budge. I told him we would go back, go back home. But he still wouldn’t budge.
I stood up. I had to do it. I had to somehow carry him. I could leave him and get some help, or call out for help. But that thought made me feel foolish. I wasn’t being attacked or mugged. I was just stuck with a dog who wouldn’t budge.
I braced myself. I could carry him partway, then put him down, and repeat until we got somewhere where there were other people, other dogs maybe. Then he would be fine. I hoped so anyway.
I was shaking out my arms, readying myself for the task, when I saw a figure emerge from the trees ahead. I froze then, just like Flynn, I froze. The figure wasn’t a person. And it was most definitely not a child in a costume. But it was the thing that had been on the balcony. The thing I had almost hit with my car the other night. The creature had clawed hands, a long thin tail, and an over-sized bulbous head with tall, stalk-like ears. Its yellow eyes were three times the size of human eyes. The pupils were dark red and star-shaped.
The creature gestured to me, but I didn’t understand what the gestures meant or what it wanted. It was contracting and releasing its clawed hands and waving it in circles. It danced from foot to foot, its tail waving back and forth. But more unsettling than its movements were the sounds it was making. Long gurgles of different pitches followed by short chirps.
I wanted to call for help, or run. I probably would have left poor Flynn behind, but I couldn’t seem to move. I wondered if I was truly frozen by fear, or if the creature had some power over my limbs. At the same time, I was also curious. It must have been that same morbid curiosity that made people unable to look away when something terrible was happening before them, an accident or tragedy. I felt tears forming in my eyes. When one of them dripped down my cheek, I finally found my voice, and I finally felt my limbs.
All I could think of to do was to reach down and stroke Flynn’s head. All I could think of to say in a breathless whisper was, “Calm down, boy. It’s okay. Calm down.”
The creature watched me. Then it opened its mouth again and uttered sounds I recognized, “C’m d’moy. Ssssoooo. C’mow.”
The creature took a step forward and repeated the sounds. I stepped back, and with some small relief saw that Flynn stepped back as well. The creature repeated the sounds again, and I suddenly realized, with fresh horror, that it was trying to say what I had said. It was trying replicate my speech.
The creature gestured again, waving and clawing at the air, then it leapt back into the forest. I couldn’t believe it. I was at once relieved and at once struck with revulsion. Because a part of me wanted to follow. I think I even took a step forward, but I felt a tugging at the leash I was holding. Flynn was backing away and tugging at the leash, leading me away as well. We both went back the way we came, and at some point, Nox joined us. She jogged beside Flynn. We soon encountered other people and animals. None of us made a sound. I didn’t say anything to anyone. We got home and I locked the door and checked the whole place again.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I wasn’t a coffee-drinker, but I kept some on hand for guests. I drank cup after cup and kept the TV on in the living room, and the radio on upstairs. But I still thought I heard noises of movement outside my balcony, outside my front door. Flynn jumped every now and then, hearing sounds that I couldn’t hear. Nox hissed and cried out every now and then in a restless moaning meow I’d never heard her utter before.
I had to occupy myself and do something useful, take some action. So I wrote down the entire account of the encounters, starting with the first night when I saw the thing race across the path of my car. Then I took to my computer and tried looking up the creature. I searched for any news of sightings. If I saw the thing, others might have as well, people who might be less inclined to worry about whether or not they sounded crazy. But there was nothing. Nothing at all.
My harried midnight searches resulted in little evidence of recent sightings in my area. Most sightings were from centuries past. Of all the possible identifications I’d found of what the creature could be—alien, human from the future, hybrid animal—there was one that matched most closely what I’d seen. It was an imp. Or at least it looked like one. There weren’t many specific details about what imps were either. I found only one site that had such details. According to that site, imps appeared to a person who had committed some grave sin. Or to someone who had made a deal with the devil. In the case of a sinner, the imp was sent forth by the ruler of hell himself to torment and punish the wrongdoer. And sometimes to encourage more wrongdoing so there could be more punishment. In the latter case, imps were sent out to make good on those devil-deals and to collect payment when payment came due.
Maybe the creature’s gesturing had meant to be beckoning. Had I only ever read about the creature and seen its picture, I might have wondered why anyone would be enticed to follow such a frightening creature. But I had been in its presence. I’d been scared out of my gourd. And despite that I had still wanted to follow it as much as I wanted to run from it.
Nothing happened on Sunday, night or day. I stayed in. I kept the animals in. I went to work on Monday. I didn’t loath my job, nor did I love it so much that I eagerly awaited every workday. But on that Monday, I was so happy, so ecstatically happy to be there, back in the real world, where the most stressful thing to happen was a missed deadline and a jammed copier. I’d forgotten that I was giving a presentation at a meeting that afternoon. I’d been dreading it for weeks. Compared to the dread I’d felt all weekend, that presentation was nothing. Nothing at all. Still, I told myself I’d ask to leave a couple of hours early, so I could get home before dark. The boss approved it, and yet, when the time came, I stayed. I wanted to stay in the real world. And I had work to do that occupied my mind, so I wasn’t thinking about imps and devil-deals.
I should have left. Maybe then it would have still been light when I got home. Maybe then I wouldn’t have seen it, loping along beside the car when I turned onto my street. I usually parked outside. Afraid that the creature—the imp—might hitch a ride on my car or do something to my car, I clicked open the garage door. I saw it then as I rolled the car into the garage. A pair of glowing yellow eyes. I turned behind me, wondering how the thing got past me and into the garage.
Are there more than one? I thought with mounting horror.
I got out of the car. The one in the garage just stood there on the counter of the workbench. It opened its mouth to show a row of sharp pointed teeth. I grabbed something from the wall, a wrench, and threw it at the thing. It dodged, jumping down from the table and skittering away out of the garage to my left. Through the corner of my eye, I caught movement on my right. I thought I smelled sulfur. I checked the garage before locking it down. I eyed the bushes before going inside.
There was one. There was only one. Now there were two, maybe more. Or there was one, only one, and it was toying with me. I had to do something. I had to figure out why they were harassing me.
I took a sick day. I did more research. I bought incense, herbs, and holy candles. I painted sigils in my driveway. At night, I saw a pair of glowing yellow eyes, or maybe many pairs, watching me from the bushes across the street. They were too big to be the eyes of a cat or a dog.
I racked my brain wondering what I could have done that was so horrible I should be visited by imps. Or if I’d ever made any deals in the darkness of my heart. What gains in my life had caused others great loss? Weren’t there those who had done far more heinous things than I could ever have done? Why were they left alone? Why were they not haunted by imps?
But maybe they were. No one else would know, would they? Unless they told someone. I decided I had to tell someone. I needed for someone to tell me I was seeing things. Then maybe I would stop. Or maybe someone else would see what I was seeing and I would know it was real. I still wasn’t sure. I knew it was real to me. I was sure it was real to Flynn and Nox. But I couldn’t ask Flynn and Nox what they thought it was, or what they knew, or what we could do about it.
I had a friend who believed in all that stuff. Mystical healing, ghosts, communication with those in the afterlife, and all of that. I wasn’t one to just believe in things. But I wasn’t one to out and out reject unbelievable things either. The notion that there were things in our world that went beyond my comprehension and the comprehension of most people seemed reasonable to me. Still, it was one thing to be open to possibilities, even to be hopeful about some things, like life after death. It was quite another to come face to face with one of those things, especially when that thing was a demon.
My friend believed me right away. She was, as I expected, excited to see what I had seen, even though I warned her about how menacing the imp was. She insisted we would figure it out and find out how to “cleanse” me of the imp. According to my research, prayer was the only answer, for only prayer could summon a power that was greater than the imp and its master. But prayer would only work for the faithful, and I was not one of them. The imp hadn’t hurt me yet. It hadn’t hurt Flynn or Nox. But I feared it was only a matter of time.
I took my friend to the park. We went during the day and again during the night, along the same path that Flynn and I had walked when we saw it. We even waited. My heart was hammering the whole time. I didn’t need gloves even though it was colder that night than the night I’d seen the imp. I was sweating. I felt dizzy when we entered the warm café that night, having seen nothing. My friend said it was because I wasn’t sleeping well. She was right, of course.
We checked the garage and the balcony. We checked my car. She stayed up, keeping watch at night, and while I slept well for the first time in several nights, knowing someone was on guard, my friend reported that she had neither seen nor heard anything unusual. She was kind enough to stay two more nights. On the third night, I stayed up with her. If I saw or heard something and she didn’t, it might confirm that I was the one marked for punishment. Or it might confirm that I was just seeing and hearing things that other people were not seeing or hearing.
But I didn’t see the imp that night either. I didn’t know what it meant. I followed my friend’s advice to go see a therapist. I went, and the therapist talked about stress, taking time to really rest, working through issues, and how the imp may be a manifestation of overwhelming and out-of-control issues in my life. Other than the imp, I didn’t have any real stress in my life. Then the therapist suggested it could be a delayed manifestation of things I’d been through in the few years past. It all sounded reasonable.
“Isn’t it possible for someone to see something that no one else sees and for that thing to still be real?” I asked. She admitted that it was possible, but not likely.
Then I came home one day and found a note slipped under my door. There were two words on the note, clumsily written in all capital letters.
I dropped the note. I dropped to the floor. I struggled to breathe. Flynn walked over slowly. I remember him licking my hand. I remember wrapping both arms around his neck. I had no other anchor in the world.
I wasn’t foolish enough to come home after dark anymore. I didn’t go out after dark either. On the rare occasion that I did, I stayed where I was until it was morning again. I paid someone to watch Flynn and Nox on such nights. I called my loved ones on a regular basis and tried my best to surreptitiously ask if anything unusual had happened in their lives lately. I was afraid the imp—or imps—might target the ones I loved to get to me, especially now that I was foiling its attempts to reach me directly, unless it wanted to come out during the day.
Every night, I heard scampering on the roof. I saw a face leering through the windows. I heard my dog howling and my cat hissing. I didn’t know if I was really seeing and hearing what I thought I was. I didn’t know if my dog was howling at a distant ambulance or howling at some unrelenting demonic enemy. I didn’t know if my cat was hissing at a nightmare in her sleep or hissing at a nightmare at our door.
I didn’t lie down to sleep. I sat in my bed, not bothering with the TV or radio anymore. I just listened and breathed slowly until I nodded off, and woke, and nodded off again, and woke. I kept the desk lamp on my bedside table turned on. If I wasn’t able to sleep much anyway, I figured I would rather have enough light to see everything in the room.
I could just leave, I thought to myself, and not for the first time. But the imp might follow. It surely would. But maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe I could leave and get rested and get stronger, and return with a renewed fortitude. Maybe I could fight it.
“Please,” I said. “I can’t do it alone. Please help me.” I heard my own voice. Quiet, just above a whisper, but steady. I didn’t know who I was speaking to. Anyone who might listen, I supposed. “I don’t know if I deserve help, but I need it. I can’t go on like this.”
I drew up my knees, wrapped my arms around them, and lay my head down on them, still pleading, silently. I must have nodded off like that. I woke to the sound of barking. Flynn was barking, and he was in my room.
I looked to the left and saw it. The imp was there. It was standing on my dresser and Flynn was barking at it, and growling at it. He wasn’t afraid of it anymore. The imp was ignoring Flynn. It was watching me. I didn’t feel so brave. I clutched my sheets. But with my other hand I reached behind my pillow for the stun gun I kept there. I didn’t know if it would understand what the stun gun was. I had practiced feeling for the on switch and turning it on in the dark. But I hadn’t had an imp staring at me while I was trying to do it. The imp took a step to the side and my heart leapt. My limbs felt like jelly. If it came for me, I didn’t know if I would be able to move. It opened its mouth and my body tensed up in expectation of what it might utter. It didn’t try to speak again. It only cried out in that gurgling that sounded somewhat like the braying of a goat.
Suddenly, a bright glow filled the room. I shielded my eyes with one arm and pulled the stun gun out with the other. The light began to dim and I could see enough to watch the imp fall to the ground. Flynn stood before it barking. The imp didn’t move, and I glanced at the glowing white light that now hovered at the opposite end of the room. Within the glow, I thought I could discern a figure. From the corner of my eye, I saw Flynn’s tail wagging. I glanced at him again quickly before looking at the glowing figure. Flynn’s tail was wagging and his tongue was flopping out of his mouth.
“I think there might be more of them,” I said, addressing the figure, trusting it partly because of Flynn’s reaction to it, and partly because I must.
But the top of the figure seemed to bow as if in a nod. I couldn’t quite tell. The glow diminished and when it was dim enough, I realized that the desk lamp’s bulb had blown out. When the glow faded to nothing, it was dark in my room, save the haze of light coming through the blinds from the street lights outside.
Flynn jumped onto the bed, which gave me enough guts to step out of bed and turn on the overhead light. I checked the floor by the dresser. The imp, or its body, was gone. There was no trace of it. Thoughts raced through my mind.
Did it escape? Or was it really defeated by the glowing being? What was that being? Did it hear my plea? Will it…want something in return? Am I still in the same predicament of owing payment?
That glowing being, it couldn’t have been an angel. I no more deserved to see an angel than I deserved to see an imp. Yet, if I had seen the imp…
Flynn was still standing on the bed. He barked once to get my attention. I gave him a hug and he licked my face and collapsed down into the submissive, “rub my belly” position. He hadn’t done that in a while. So I rubbed his belly as Nox came slinking into the room.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
In answer, she jumped up on the bed and started purring at me. I could make sense of what had just happened, but I didn’t want to just then. I didn’t want to try and fathom the possible explanations. I didn’t want to have deep thoughts, or any thoughts at all. I just wanted to rub my hands over friendly furry heads and wait for the light of morning.
A few hours later, I sat at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and eating a piece of toast. I could hear the rustle and bustle of neighbors and realized that it was Saturday and most everyone was still home. I wasn’t alone.
I was finally starting to think about it. I was still sleep-deprived, but I felt more clear-headed. I felt…almost all right. I’d had dreams before where I thought I had woken up and then realized I was still dreaming. When I actually woke up, I knew I was awake and that everything that had come before was a dream. I felt a bit like that in that moment, really awake. A small pessimistic part of me wasn’t sure that the creatures that had been haunting me had truly been dealt with, that what happened last night had been too “easy.”
Flynn sat beside me. He set his sizable chin on my lap and looked up at me. I patted his head.
“There are unknown things. I’ve got to respect that. But I hope I never see it again, boy. Never again.”
Nox rubbed against my ankle, purring. I gave her head a tickle and she trotted away to the living room.
Nox trotted through the living room and to the front door. There was a slip of paper there. If she had been able to read human language, to understand, she might not have done what she did next. She licked the paper and tasted something faintly familiar, something that she did not like. She pounced on it, tearing to shreds the paper and the two words written on it.
Copyright © 2016. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Incident of the Imp” by Sanjay Patel.