Jay leaned against Bruce’s refrigerator, clutching the coiled phone cord. He put the phone’s receiver up to his ear and flinched. He did not expect to hear such an awful howl.
“Yes,” he said tentatively.
“You need to get home right this minute.” Along with his wife’s pleading, Jay heard his son’s screeching in the background, coming and going like he was on a whirling carnival ride. “Why isn’t your cell phone turned on? I’ve left a million messages.”
“We’re right in the middle of our study, so of course I’m not going to have my phone on. What set him off this time?” Jay kneaded his forehead with the heel of his hand, the phone cord tangled in his fingers.
Bruce brought in some mugs and crashed them in the sink. Jay heard Will and Hector and Larry at the entryway, laughing as they were leaving. Bruce hesitated. His massive bulk stood at the doorway that led back into the dining room.
“One second he’s sitting at the table,” his wife was saying, “doing math or whatever and the next he’s hurling books—that’s right, not one book but books—across the room. Jay, he broke the frame of my mother’s portrait. I haven’t had the stomach to check the picture for damage. If there’s just one little scratch, I swear to God.”
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” Jay said. Then he moved the phone a bit from his mouth. “Are you okay, Bruce?”
“Yeah,” Bruce barely mumbled. This was the first time Bruce hosted the married men’s bible study at his house, and he seemed distracted the whole evening, forgetting where he’d put the DVD commentary to play for their ongoing study on Acts. He had said something about Peggy lying when they were going over the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Then Bruce shouted, “See, God kills liars,” making the other men flinch in their seats. When Will pressed him on it, Bruce said his wife called, saying she was working late, but he heard music and a man laughing and the clinking of glasses, the sounds of a club or bar. This had happened many times before.
“How can he have another episode so quickly?” Jay heard his wife say.
“Are you almost done?” Bruce said, not turning around, his wide back taking up the whole doorframe. “Keep the line open.”
“Just finishing up.”
“Are you talking to someone else?” said his wife. “Are you kidding me?”
“It’s like this trench dug out from my stomach to my throat.” Bruce sobbed, and he managed to say, “I need out,” and vanished into the darkness of the dining room.
Jay waited until he heard the front door slam. The whole house shook. “Didn’t you see me all over the floor with him last night?” he yelled back into the receiver. “He wants to…to…beat himself up, and me along with him. Didn’t you see me practically choking all the air out of him, trying to keep his fists from doing more injury? I’m terrified I’ll accidentally break one of his arms.” When she didn’t answer, he went on, “I’m thinking about having Will help us. I know he has offered his counseling skills to other couples and their kids, and I think we should take him on, too. In fact, Will and I were talking earlier about setting up a time this next week right before you called, and I think that’s a God-thing, don’t you?” Jay hadn’t talk to Will about setting up anything. When she didn’t answer, Jay stammered until his son’s incoming shrill racing through the phone line deeply unnerved him. Next he tried, “Listen, the guy teaches kids all day, and you know what a godly man Will is. I think he’d work better than someone we don’t know.”
“Fine, is Will there? Send him over.”
“No, he’s gone, but I’m leaving. I’m leaving right now” and then Jay sucked in air. Bruce’s daughter, Carla, was standing on the other side of the kitchen island, staring at him. Her nightgown looked more like something she would wear to a dance recital, not sleep in. The little girl’s dull gaze startled him.
“I think Carla might be sleepwalking,” he said into the phone.
“No I’m not,” Carla said.
“What did you say?” His wife’s voice flooded with weariness. “Jay, please go get in your car.” He heard his boy’s far-off anguish, and he knew he could only listen for so much longer.
“I’m on my way,” Jay said, reading the oven’s digital clock. “It’s nine-forty now. I’ll be home by ten.” He gently placed the receiver back in its cradle.
Jay walked around the island.
“Is my mom home yet?”
Jay imagined her and her work friends, probably at some dim-lit smoky nightclub. He remembered the clubs he used to frequent down the street from the university he attended decades ago. He imagined a sparkling spinning ball above, the crush of bodies below on the dance floor, Peggy and everyone else covered in a swarm of white dots.
“She’ll be home soon,” Jay said and squatted down to her level.
“My dad says she won’t be home to say goodnight, but I’m staying up.” Carla said flatly, “My dad was yelling again.”
Jay thought, No, that was me.
“He’s okay. He’s just outside right now.”
“I’m used to it.” Carla was as bland as distilled water, the emotional antithesis of Jay’s boy. “I thought my mom was making him cry again.”
“If you’re supposed to be in bed, maybe I should tuck you in.”
Jay placed a hand on Carla’s back and gently maneuvered her out of the kitchen and down the short hallway. She stopped at her open bedroom door, resisting.
“Dad says Satan is here.”
“In your room?” Jay felt his skin move about like shuffling dominoes.
“Yes, sometimes,” Carla said. “And he’s in the rest of the house, too.”
“Oh, honey,” Jay said, and felt terrible for the girl. “He can’t hurt you.”
“Dad says he’s here because Mom brought Satan home with her.” Carla pulled on her eyelid listlessly and then dropped her arm dead at her side. “Dad screamed that Satan was all over the house, and then Mom locked herself in the bathroom. Dad cried outside the bathroom door. I heard him through the walls.”
“Oh, honey,” was all Jay could say.
“He is in there.” She pointed into her room.
“I don’t see him,” Jay scolded a bit, without meaning to.
“No, he’s outside my window.”
The bedroom light was on, and the space overflowed with an eight-year-old girl’s things. His son’s room had things of a ten-year-old boy, but cluttered in the same way. He left her at the door, stepping over a half-constructed dollhouse, scattered board games, and several piles of stuffed animals to get to the window. He went to tug on the cord. For a moment he hoped Bruce wasn’t standing there on the other side of the glass, looking in. The blind quickly rose up. The window was a big black square.
“I still don’t see him.” Jay tried sounding cheerful this time around. He put his palm on the windowsill and crossed one foot over the other, trying to look remarkably casual about the whole thing.
Carla didn’t seem too scared, and yet she stayed put, resolved.
Jay wondered what he could do. He figured he could easily pick her up. Thankfully, she probably wouldn’t put up a fight, like his boy. She’d probably stay as rigid as a two-by-four across his arms, all the way to her bed. He felt grit under his palm and looked down at the dirty sill. Then he remembered: his family is leaving for a long trip somewhere. Jay’s father makes the rounds throughout his home, dabbing his fingers into a small pool of used cooking oil from an iron skillet, anointing all of the doorframes and windowsills, all the time calling up to the ceiling for his house’s protection against intruders.
Jay told Carla he knew exactly what to do and went back to the kitchen. He opened and closed cabinets. He checked the pantry and found a plastic bottle of canola oil.
Carla waited at the end of the hallway, the light from her bedroom spilling over her small body. Jay thought, Otherworldly.
“Watch this,” he said.
Jay unscrewed the cap and tipped the bottle of oil, covering the end of his finger with the shiny liquid. He dabbed some oil on the top corners of the glass, then a few spots on the sides, and finally placed oily fingerprints on the bottom corners of the window. Next he applied smudges along the dusty sill, every few inches or so. “Please God,” Jay said, “dispatch a host of Your heavenly angels to knock Satan into next week if he shows his ugly face.” Jay spun around and smiled broadly.
Carla moved her mouth, maybe the idea of a grin.
“Do you see them?” Jay said. “Just outside your window? I see them. I see the backs of ten-foot tall angels taking up the entire window. Can you see their huge wings of radiant starlight?”
Finally Carla smirked, barely.
The phone in the kitchen rang.
“I’m going to bed now,” she said and calmly walked into her room. She moved under the thick comforter on her bed and turned her back to Jay.
The phone rang and rang and rang.
He lingered at her doorway. “Everything is fine now,” Jay said absently.
“Turn off the light,” Carla said, “and shut my door on your way out.”
# # #
Dan Crawley’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of journals, including Wigleaf, apt, Gravel, SmokeLong Quarterly: The Best of the First Ten Years, matchbook, and Jellyfish Review. He is a recipient of an Arizona Commission on the Arts creative writing fellowship.
Photo credit: Terri Malone