Toby spent hours online, lumbering through bogs of blogs and consulting various books—until he stumbled upon a slim professional volume, Raising Demons: Black Arts for Idiots. Purporting to describe classes of demons who could be called upon to perform certain shady services, its glossy cover showed a ferocious-toothed creature unfurling bat-like wings. Toby read the book through twice, but remained confused as to how this junk actually worked. There were warnings galore against summoning such monsters, of course; plus he couldn’t figure out if whatever appeared would do what was wanted or try to eat his eyeballs. The price for the service seemed unclear as well.
The thing was, Toby’s son had died a month ago and Toby wanted him back. Simple.
Like anything in real life, though, there were no simple solutions. So he got back online, found an email address for the author of the book, Edith Z.— firstname.lastname@example.org–and sent her a bland note.
She responded less than fifteen minutes later:
Dear Mr. Vogler,
Obviously you’ve experienced a great loss.
I don’t normally involve myself in such matters,
no good ever comes of them, but your case is so sad
I think I can help. I feel obligated, frankly.
[she provided her home address
and suggested he come right away]
P.S. We’ll work out the cost.
Toby didn’t believe in this woman of course. The author’s photo (affected moody black and white) showed Ms Z. shawl-wrapped, wearing a voluminous muumuu. Dark curly hair fountained from her head and cascaded around her fat face. Her slit-eyed expression conveyed a knowing aura. No, he didn’t believe in her, but he’d quit his job, sold the home he inherited from his father and was willing to try anything because, well, nothing mattered.
His life had been reduced to a series of horrors which had cooled out to a routine of dull despair. How was it possible his twenty-three year old son Matt had died under a forklift he shouldn’t have been driving? Without a license he’d been readying a load of something or other for insertion into the back of a truck. It was raining. The steep bay’s already oily concrete was therefore quite slick. The tires slipped, skidding the forklift forward so that the whole top-heavy thing tumbled into the steep bay, which had a deep wedge of un-drained water. Initially the durable, yellow metal caging around Matt’s seat provided him protection, but in trying to escape, clambering through the upside down cab’s bars, the forklift suddenly shifted and crunched down on him, forcing his face underwater. Panic erupted. Help was called.
Didn’t matter, though. He drowned long before his broken body could be extricated from beneath the machine, which fortunately was still in good shape.
Matt’s boss, it soon came out, had had workers doing all sorts of unsafe things all the time; there had been other accidents, a smashed hand, a mangled foot, none reported to OSHA as the boss wished to keep clear of any official paperwork. He had paid his employees’ medical expenses himself, using a private clinic. No questions were ever asked. Nobody cared either, including Matt, because nobody had ever died before.
And Matt’s boss wasn’t a bad man. He had come to Toby the day after Matt’s death, mustachioed, gut heaving, and apologized in person; also, he gave Toby a generous amount of cash to pay for Matt’s pathetic funeral. “I’d give you more,” he said sitting across the kitchen table from Toby, “I’d give you everything, but they’re suing the crap out of me. If you want to kill me, I understand.” He began to sob. “I’d kill me.”
Somehow it was Toby who wound up comforting Matt’s boss, assuring the man he did not want his car, house, anything. He gave the man a glass of milk and a sandwich.
“How’s your wife taking it?” Matt’s boss asked wiping his eyes. “I bet she’d like to see me dead.”
How was his wife taking it? Well, Toby explained, she was dead, cancer, three years ago. Horror upon horror.
Yet here he was, a month after Matt’s death—a week after Matt’s boss eventually committed suicide by shotgun—dressing as if everything were normal, to go on a road trip and see a psychic about his son: definitely not normal.
Before driving the hundreds of miles to her house Toby stopped by the shuttered place where Matt had worked and died. Looked into the deep mouth of the loading bay. Its huge metal doors, like dumb eyes, stared over the black water still pooled in the decline beneath them, looking sickly. Maybe Matt’s soul was trapped there.
That finally got him going. Toby thought of Matt throughout the trip. He thought of the boy when he stopped for fast food and when he saw a teen toddling along the highway’s shoulder late that afternoon; he thought of Matt when he passed a car in which two male friends were laughing. Matt had been between parts of his life. He’d dropped out of school after losing his girlfriend and was biding time at that stupid job, adrift, at odds, lost, stranded; he’d gained weight and begun ranting about politics all the time.
Edith Z. lived in a faded blue house in a small, seemingly abandoned rural town full of several shuttered homes with faded paint jobs. She met Toby at the door, seated him in a small room with a cramped angular ceiling sparsely decorated, crystal items Toby assumed must be associated with cultistics. The woman was fatter than on the cover of her book. She had short hair, wore stained sweats and sat at an empty cracked desk. She asked Toby what she could do for him. “I of course know but it’s important I get everything in your own words so I can see what energies you’re excreting.”
He told her the story of his son’s death, stumble-mumbling around the subject of what he had come for. It all sounded so ludicrous. Eventually, though, he said it out loud and felt better.
“I see,” the woman said, nodding. She picked up one of several sets of Tarot cards on her desk, an almost comically oversized deck, shuffled them, and had Toby remove a card at random. Dark abstract image: grays, reds and blacks melted down its surface—the Death card? He asked.
“No, no,” Edith Z. reassured him. “The Hanged Man. I was hoping the answer would be clearer, but I’ll just have to trust that this is right. Of course it’s going to be very expensive. If your consult with Ismael proves plausible you pay part today, through a digital transfer, and the rest when the job is complete. Come, Ismael awaits.”
Dropping the cards back on the desk, she stood with a grunt and led Toby through an empty, dusty hall. A brisk turn passed them by an open bathroom in whose tub a gurney with prominent straps was propped. Then they were outside a splintered door. Edith Z. gave it a tentative knock.
The door creaked open, a gaunt woman with pink rabbitty eyes invited them in. A bed and three fold up chairs. The window had what looked like several quilts nailed to it. The odor was foul, reminiscent of rotten eggs. The sound of heavy breathing. As Toby’s eyes adjusted to the dimness a bed became visible. No sheet, just the mattress encased with a smeared, grayish, plastic cover. Bound to the bed with ropes, protective towels and numerous pillows was a thin, shirtless young man in filthy briefs. He was bald, his face bruised.
“What the hell?”
“Hell’s the right word,” the gaunt woman said with a sly smile. “It’s asking to have its toenails clipped,” she said wearily to Edith Z.
“Well Ismael, after what you did last night I insist you help the client first.”
“Fuck you!” The boy shouted in a raspy voice.
“Do you want me to open the window? Or get out the water again? Linda and I could bring you that old Russian Orthodox icon and pray over you for twenty-four hours straight if you’d like.”
“Shit, no more of your prayers! I’d rather go back into the suffocating horror of infinite darkness than listen to that anymore!”
“Then do as you’re told, Ismael. Afterwards soup, and when the others come I’ll make them sit in silence around you. ”
“They’re raping me for Satan!” he gasped at Toby and thrashed and wriggled violently against his bindings.
“What is this?”
“This is how we get what you want,” Edith Z. said. “Make no mistake Mr. Vogler, it’s a nasty business. What you’re here for is an abomination.”
“What are you doing to this child?”
“He’s a vessel for Ismael,” replied the gaunt woman. “How else could we perform dark magics? Ismael’s top tier. He knew Madame Blavatsky.”
“Why don’t fuck yourself up the ass with a black candle dildo, you whore?”
Glenda Z. sighed. “Now we leave so that you and Ismael may work out your pact. If he gets on your nerves just smack him hard, but he will try to bite you.”
Once they’d left Toby remained standing at the foot of the bed.
“Ask what you want,” Ismael said calmly. “I know already, but I won’t help without your saying it in so many words. And in a very obsequious manner, I think.”
Feeling awkward, Toby moved to the side of the bed. The boy watched and waited. “Oh great one?” Toby said. He felt ridiculous yet he knew this was for real, that Ismael was real, that this evil thing could perform miracles. He felt it along his prickling spine.
“Refer to me as master.” It said.
“Master, I came to beg you to bring my son back to life.”
“I don’t give a fuck about your dead son. He was a liar who raped his girlfriend and hated you.”
“That’s not true.”
“Agree to what I said, otherwise I won’t help you.” The boy farted and laughed. Sounds came from the walls.
After a moment Toby answered, “My son was a liar and hated me.”
“To get what you want you must kill an innocent, the daughter of your son’s dead boss.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Too bad. Takes one life to get another. Criss cross. Afterward, bring me a vial of her blood. I’ll drink, say the magic words and you’ll have your son again. Do it or don’t. I don’t give a shit. Criss cross.”
“Is that from something?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
He bought a Beretta 92 from a pawn shop and began following the girl, a young woman actually. He was going to kill her. Plump, plain-faced with long black hair, the girl wore thick framed glasses which gave her an inane expression. She lived with her mother. Gradually Toby came to understand the young woman was intellectually disabled, and that he really was going to take her life.
Days and nights turned themselves inside out as he trailed her walking to and from her pathetic job—she worked at a fast food restaurant a couple blocks from her mother’s house. The plan he had conceived was simple: pull up beside her as she waddled home in the dark, shoot her through his window, and take her blood. Easy peasy. But committing this terrible act was difficult despite his desperation.
For a couple nights he sat in the parking lot outside the restaurant, and stared. Occasionally the girl would appear in its well lit windows, first one, then the other, moving among plastic tables, cleaning away trash, mopping. The third night he got out of his car, crept into the alley behind the fast food place and hid in a shadowy niche. At some point the girl emerged from a grimy yellow door and dumped a bag of trash in the nearby dumpster. A young man came out after her, the boss. “Miriam,” he said, “you forgot the one by the stove again,”
“Sorry,” she said. “Are you gonna fire me?”
“No Miriam, I told you a hundred times, we’re happy with your work.”
“Cause I really like my job. This is my favorite place to eat.”
Toby could not bring himself to put the young woman to death that night or the next.
Pity. Horrible, stupid, useless pity. Not so much for Miriam as her widowed mother, who’d already lost so much; the girl frankly disgusted him. She was unfairly alive; a damaged creature without purpose, without point—while the promise of his son had been snuffed out. Something wrong here. World out of whack. End of reason. The removal of reality.
Next night Miriam left the restaurant carrying a rolled up poster she’d bought from a coworker. About a block away, in a patch of dark positioned between two emanations of street light, Toby pulled up beside her. She kept walking even as he rolled down his window.
“Miriam?” He asked. She didn’t answer. “Miriam?”
“I don’t know you,” she said and started to walk faster.
“But I knew your dad,”
“Liar!” she shouted and started to run, dropping her poster. Toby stuck both hands out the window, gripping his gun. He shot once, twice, and actually hit her. She cried out, grabbed her side, yet continued forward, hobbling off the street into a shallow ditch. Terrified the girl might disappear through some inconvenient foliage Toby hit the gas and rammed her, flinging her to the ground. Didn’t kill her, though. Determined, the girl tried to pull herself to her feet again. By this time Toby was out of his car, making his way toward her, repulsed, angry, intent on shooting her at close range. But his foot suddenly twisted, causing him to drop the Beretta 92 into shadowy grass. There was no time to look for it, though, because Miriam was back on her feet, limping away; screaming for help.
Toby ran at her and punched her head. She fought. He hit her more. She cried, gasped. He slapped her, backhanded her and wrestled her to the ground. Excited by the struggle he hardly noticed Miriam’s defensive scratches, kicks or bites, though eventually he did become aware of the terrible pathos of forcing this sad broken girl onto her stomach while a train sobbed in the distance. He dropped a knee on her spine and placed his hands around the back of her neck. When his fingers met at her fluttering her windpipe he squeezed and squeezed until he felt the neck snap, a sickening sensation, nearly audible.
Once she was dead he cut her face, blade-flicked a bit of blood into an old pill bottle left over from the early phase of his wife’s cancer. He stood and started back toward the car. Something glimmering near the curbside: Miriam’s glasses, lens cracked. He bent to retrieve them; the mist of orange street light behind him cast Toby’s reflection across each lens, one version fissured, fractured; the other liquid smooth. He pitched them into a clump of bushes beyond Miriam’s corpse. He searched for and recovered the Beretta 92. He stepped on the girl’s poster and tore, a crowd of puppies. Someone drove by then. Floating headlights suddenly swept across him standing on the street, and Miriam, a dull lump, and Toby didn’t care if he got caught. The driver noticed nothing, though, and swooshed off into the night.
Now I’m going to get my son back, he thought. A fair trade, this.
Sweating, sore all over, he slammed himself back into his car. Roy Orbison wailed the word “Crying” on the radio as Toby left the scene of the crime.
“I did it,” Toby said once Edith Z. had left him and Ismael alone—this time no pink-eyed Linda lurked around. Supposedly sick. Toby wondered if there was more to it. Giant holes had been punched in the wall near the window. Dark brown smears were visible on the inside of the empty closet door, and only one foldup chair sat by the bed.
“It’s done,” he said again.
“I know,” rasped Ismael from the bed, still bound to it.
“So now what?”
“Did you bring what I asked?”
“The blood: yes, here.” Toby took the pill bottle from his pocket and showed it to the boy.
“Open it and hold under my nose.” Toby did so. The boy breathed deeply, savoring the odor.
“What’s it for?”
“Actually,” the boy responded, “I don’t need it.”
“I don’t need blood to do magic. Quelle idée! I just like its qualities.”
“So all you needed was the sacrifice?”
“Oh about that,” the boy grinned. “You really didn’t have to kill dumb little Miriam.”
“The fuck?” Toby asked not quite comprehending, stumped by staggering idea of what he had heard.
“I don’t know why I should tell such a lie,” Isamel said using a fake southern accent.
“Is that some kind of sick joke?”
“I just wanted to see if you’d do it; what kind of man you are. Now I know. Eyes on Miriam, Toby. She was so scared, died in terrible pain, no idea what was happening to her.”
Fury overcame Toby and he attacked the bound boy, fell on him. Sudden shouting. Edith Z. rushed in. She attempted to grab Toby’s arm and pull him away, crying “Stop this immediately! You’ll only make it worse.”
But Toby couldn’t stop, especially as the thing in bed began shouting and crying in imitation of Miriam; then barking like a dog, which Toby understood to be a reference to the girl’s poster.
As Toby beat on Ismael, an arm and a leg came free of the ropes; his wrist cracked; the liberated leg kicked out in an unnatural arc, hitting Edith Z. who whipped back against a wall. Ismael then scratched Toby’s face; went for Toby’s testicles; missed, digging fingers deep into Toby’s thigh. Hot, excruciating pain. A bookshelf somehow sidled into the room through the open door, which slammed shut. The closet door cracked in half. Continuing to move about, the shelf cut Edith Z. off from the bed, beside which the empty chair rose in the air, folded of its own accord and smacked Toby’s shoulder and head, causing his ear to explode with a high pitched tone. He jerked free of Ismael’s thigh-grip, stumbled sideways and fell onto the worn, hole-y carpet. Cackling, the boy reached into his underwear with his crook-wristed hand and began to masturbate. The sound of tapping behind the walls broke out, the room went cold. Edith Z. finally freed herself of the shelf, stood over Ismael and loudly chastised him. “No, Ismael! If you don’t quit right now I’ll call in brother Auberjonois. You want him here again?”
All went silent. The boy lolled limply on the bed. Blood mixed with saliva drooled out the side of his mouth; his face, sweaty, stared down at Toby with post-orgasmic relief. Ismael’s weary expression suggested that of a martyred saint in a classic portrait. “I am at the beginning and the end,” he said tonelessly. “I come from beyond time, trickling through space toward pain and horror, devouring, effecting matter as I please. I am alive and dead. I breathe and I animate or annihilate a stone. I see all things as they are, were and will be.” He smiled at Toby. “Your wish is granted, mouse. Now go away. When I’m done you may dig him up.”
“Go to the boy’s grave and I’ll text when it’s finished,” said Edith Z. “Then send the link to your last payment.” She looked down at Ismael smilingly. “You won’t cheat us.”
Still angry, Toby started out of the room. Ismael called him back. “If” he said, “you don’t like what you get, which I can’t imagine—just utter these words to reverse the spell: Pada ata pad ogo feur lant.” (these words Toby scribbled down on a receipt once he was in his car).
Out in the hall Toby heard Ismael begin sing-drawling, “Cry-aye-aye-ing—Oh-ver you.”
Edith Z. texted as promised. He was standing over his son’s grave in mild sunlight when the message came, already several feet into the dig.
Grassy blandness all around broken by the occasional tree and various gray headstones with portions of flowers—all of which made Toby feel very self-conscious and vulnerable. What if someone saw him and called the police? But he no longer cared, just as he hadn’t cared about being caught in the act of killing that girl. He was beyond good, evil, the threat of mortal punishment, alone in despair and desperation. At this point he at least had a sense he was doing something.
The dirt was still fairly loose despite its having been weeks since the funeral and at first things went easily. He felt all right about what he was doing, immune to any intervention. But as Toby went deeper, into his mind as well as the ground, he became more anxious about what he would find. Time slowed. Digging, heaving, digging, heaving—followed by more of the same until finally Toby hit the coffin; unearthed its domed lid, which he jimmied open using a crowbar. His son lay in the blue satiny interior looking gray, bloated. Suddenly he gasped from the coffin, his swollen body deflated gaseously and he opened cloudy eyes and began crying.
Thus began Toby’s true trials and tribulations.
After refilling the grave, placing his son in the back seat of the car, cleaning himself and laying out a blanket for his shivering son to sprawl on; after driving home and bathing his son and after having stopped for something to eat, not in that order, Toby saw right away there was something wrong. Matt’s gray skin was rubbery, pulled tight against his ribs, sagging under his arms.
“What’s happening?” Matt asked over and over. He was hungry but he couldn’t eat. He wanted to know where he was. He couldn’t urinate or defecate yet his entrails ached and fluids issued periodically from his anus, his mouth, strange and darkly colored, smelling of rotten meat. But Toby’s son was back; it was joy, no matter how horrible.
Matt meanwhile claimed his chest felt heavy. Still couldn’t eat. He felt as if he were underwater, continuously drowning. Therefore he could not sleep. He could not walk but he was able to crawl.
The second day he screamed and said he couldn’t wake up. His dull dead eyes rolled toward Toby as he lay in the tub, whose cold hardness he preferred to his bed, because everything hurt. He’d been somewhere strange, he said. “I think I was being tortured only it’s worse now.” He cried and coughed up a glob of milky gray liquid. “You’re not real, none of this is real.”
That night he began to bite his lips and said he wanted to be dead again.
“Just hold on,” Toby said. “It’ll get better.”
It didn’t. The third day was worse. Toby caught him several times trying to kill himself and had to lock the boy in a closet—easy, as the boy was so very thin and papery—but the whole night Matt cried and beat the closet’s walls.
Toby was forced to go out for food one afternoon and returned to find Matt escaped from the closet, in the tub, sunken eyed, his throat and wrists slit. Nothing came out of his wounds but a little black drool.
“I can’t die,” he whined. “What’s wrong with me?”
“I need you,” Toby said crying. “Please don’t try to kill yourself again.”
After a nasty note from a neighbor complaining about all the noise Toby felt he must do something. He hefted Matt into the trunk of the car—the boy’s shouting, shuddering fits made keeping him up front impossible during the drive to Glenda Z.’s, pursued by an endless storm. Her phone number no longer worked; her email was a void. Something gone wrong. Toby had always known it had to go wrong.
The house was empty, so was the town, he realized. Nothing but the bed with its plasticized mattress and ropes, which Toby used to tie Matt down—he kept sobbing and blathering he wanted to die, that he hadn’t asked for any of this, that his father was selfishly keeping him trapped in this bright, harsh, violent reality.
Toby didn’t care. Things would get better, had to get better.
After another day of the boy’s sobbing accusations Toby, frazzled by lack of sleep, wondered was all he had to look forward to? Angry, self-pitying, he uttered the words to undo this hideous magic. “Pada ata pad ogo feur lant,” he said.
Nothing. Matt was still ranting from the bed, scratching himself—his hands were free—pulling hanks of dead hair out of his greenish scalp.
Ismael had lied to him again! Toby almost laughed. Wow, he thought. You really cannot trust an evil thing, can you? And after tricking me once before. Shame on me.
Time came, went, and his son continued babbling in fear and pain. Toby got the Beretta 92 he’d used on Miriam from under the back seat of the car.
“Do it!” Matt begged. “Kill me!”
Toby shot, but Matt didn’t die. A huge chunk of his head was blown off, skull and jaw revealed. An eye hung loose in a wash of blood—but he lived…sort of. The sounds he made were a loud gargle. Toby shot again and again, then took the crow bar and beat what was left of the boy’s head to black-gray mush. Arms continued twitching, reactively. Disgusted, Toby yanked Matt’s baggy bulk to the dirty, carpeted floor and over several hours bludgeoned him to a boneless pulp. Finally he got a saw from the car and violently took Matt apart, the numerous stringy pieces of which continued to writhe. Toby tried to burn them. It was like a nightmare. The carpet flamed, but the bits of his son still throbbed.
After stamping out the fire Toby distributed his son’s remains between the back yards of several empty houses throughout the neighborhood, knowing they were alive, in pain. Then he intended to blow his brains out. But as he stood before the bathroom mirror covered in his son, which still tingled with life, the Beretta 92 crammed in his mouth—he just couldn’t. What was waiting for him on the other side? Horror? Pain? Something worse? No, suicide wasn’t an option. It was the one thing he couldn’t do.
Toby left the house, the town, trying not to think of his son buried in all those backyards. He supposed he’d have to buy some groceries when he got home; and he had bills to pay and a job to look for. What else was there?
— Joe Aisenberg is a writer and film critic.