THE DEVIL CAME TO ADDISON WORLEY
by ANDREW BARRER
“Talk of the devil, and his horns appear.”
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
t was a Tuesday night the first time the Devil came to Addison Worley. Addison was twelve-years-old, young, but hardly the type to suffer from nightmares. When he did, he was hardly the type to fall for them. He was a levelheaded young man. Logical. He was described by his teachers as “methodical,” “even-tempered,” “patient.” Hand to God, he was once described in a meeting between his mother and Mrs. Durant, Addison’s history teacher, as “sagely.”
And so it was with a near preternatural calm, that Tuesday night, that first of many nights, that Addison took note of the dark shape standing just inside his bedroom door. He eyed it curiously. There was a series of hooks mounted on the wall, Addison’s coats were hung from them. The dark figure was standing by the coats, pressed back against the wall and mixed in with them. So, of course, Addison found himself asking that age-old question, that question every child asks themselves about the dark shapes they spot lurking in the far reaches of their bedrooms at night: “Is it just my mind playing tricks on me?”
“Is it just my imagination?”
But the dark shape didn’t leave Addison very much time at all to entertain such levelheaded possibilities. Within moments of being spotted, it took a single, resolute step forward. A big-eager-nasty step away from the coat hooks, and toward Addison, like an overzealous kid picked first for kickball at recess. It was Addison who came up with the analogy, but still, the analogy spooked him. Because it wasn’t just the presence of the dark figure that was horrible. It was the – what shall we call it? – the attitude of the thing. That first step forward was giddy with excitement. The dark figure, it seemed, was goosed by the fact that it had finally been seen.
This made Addison wonder… Had it been there before? And, if so, how long? How long had the dark figure waited with the coats just inside the door? How long had it waited to be seen? Had it been waiting for years? Had it been waiting always?
Addison reasoned, perhaps wisely, that it wasn’t yet too late to pretend he hadn’t actually seen the dark figure at all. Sure, he did startle, ever so slightly, upon first noticing it. But what did that matter? Sleep is often punctuated by the jostles and twitches of the sleeper. Who’s to say he hadn’t simply hiccuped under the weight of a particularly lucid dream? No one was to say, Addison decided. Least of all the dark figure now taking a second-third-fourth step across the room toward the foot of his bed. Sleep was the best defense. In every horror movie, the horrible thing that comes after the child always waits for the child to wake before pouncing. And Addison supposed that made sense. Where’s the fun in being horrible if you don’t take the time requisite to inspire horror before advancing the situation to the point of physical contact, the point where horror surely gives way to a less textured panic, or a wilting despair?
Addison kept his eyelids hovering loosely - to an observer, they would appear to be closed, but they weren’t closed, not entirely - and the crescents of pupil peaking out from below their lashy rims tracked the confidant approach of the dark figure all the way to within inches of Addison’s feet.
His feet were exposed. That was the part Addison hated the most. He preferred a cool sleep, and so he usually left his feet poking out from under the comforter. But now, with the dark figure standing above him, inches away from the soft flesh on the underside of his feet, he realized the comforter, in a moment like this, amounted to a kind of force field. He was mostly safe hidden beneath the heavy sheet. Only his feet, and his head, were vulnerable.
Addison didn’t move. He didn’t breathe. He lay still and silent, doing his best to keep his eyelids from quivering over his slowly drying eyeballs. He watched the dark figure watch him. He tried to make out its features, and was struck by the utter blackness of the thing. The dark figure was so entirely dark, it seemed to shimmer with... lack. It wasn’t a dark figure, after all. It was empty. It was a void. It was a man-shaped void. Searching for features beneath the darkness of the figure was a bit like searching for the component shades of paint mixed into the black glob on his palette in art class. There simply were no colors. Not anymore.
Addison was tired at breakfast. Mom sat across the table, watching him pick unenthusiastically at his Cinnamon Toast Crunch, forcing a few bites. “Are you sick of that kind? We have the other kind, too. The chocolate one.”
Addison shook his head, offering a smile. “I just didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. I had a nightmare.”
“Nymur!” This, an attempt at adding to the conversation by Addison’s father. Dad was sitting next to Mom, strapped into his wheelchair, his head slumping gruesomely to the right. His head always slumping, always to the right, the curve of his neck severe, like there wasn’t any bone in there at all. A thin line of drool always quivering between his lower lip and his shoulder. “Nymur!” His voice coming out in a croak, one part growl, two parts baby coo.
Dad had a stroke last year. There wasn’t much to say beyond that. Addison was a levelheaded kid, after all. A logical kid. He knew it was a waste of time to wish it hadn’t happened. And he never bothered with that foremost of agonizing questions: Why? It was just one of those horrible things that happen to people all the time. It wasn’t any different than if Dad had been hit by a car, or if he disappeared on a perilous jungle trek. It was a simple, mundane tragedy. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Addison didn’t know if he believed in God. Some of the things they talked about in Sunday School sounded reasonable. Some of the things didn’t. But he knew if God did exist, there wasn’t any point in laying blame at the Almighty’s doorstep. Nor was there any point in chalking it up to God’s Plan. God, Addison reasoned, was most likely the kind of guy who dealt in big numbers. Averages. Percentages. The kind of guy who made a habit of rounding to the nearest hundredth. Not because God was a jerk, or anything like that. It would simply be a matter of necessity. If there was really only one God, the way they said in Sunday School, then he would simply have to toss handfuls of people onto the pile from time-to-time, sacrificing them to the rhythm of the game, the way Dad did with his poker chips back when he could still host Guys’ Night.
Addison gave Dad a congenial nod. “Yep! A nightmare!” The roles forever reversed.
Mom stared back across the table, looking more confused than concerned. “A nightmare? I can’t remember the last time you had one of those.”
Addison shrugged it off. “A kid’s gotta have one every once in a while, I guess.”
Mom laughed at this. She always laughed when Addison said something so reasonable. “I love you, Mr. Precocious.”
Addison scooped one last spoonful of Cinnamon Toast Crunch down his throat. “I love you too, Mom.” His mouth was full.
Addison walked the lazy curves of the creek with his best friend, Patrick. This was their recess ritual. Their words. The creek was at the far end of the schoolyard, a ways off from most of the rough and tumble action. They began their ritual back in the second grade, when the primary interest of other boys their age was finding smaller boys – boys like Addison and Patrick – to torment. Over the years, most of the boys had lost interest in them, and turned their attention to more conventional sporting, like soccer and touch football. Sure, there were still a handful of oafs out there, bullies too slow and stupid to keep up with a ball and pretty angry about it. But they mostly focused on the terminally weak, of which Addison and Patrick were happily not numbered.
No, their recess ritual wasn’t about self-preservation anymore. Mostly, it was about catharsis. This was their time for sober, unimpeded conversation. A time to recharge and replenish in the shade of the trees, to the tune of water trickling over smoothly indifferent rocks.
They usually busied themselves with the pursuit of toads. It was a meditative thing. A keep your hands busy so your mind can wander thing. And yes, they knew it was a bit childish, a relic of their second-grade selves who first staked a claim to the far reaches of the schoolyard. But they did it anyway. It was, after all, a ritual.
But today felt a little different. While Patrick darted from rock to rock, clapping his hands over empty air when the toads slipped deftly away, Addison only stood by and watched. He recently read a short story by Stephen King in which a hapless couple was attacked and killed by a mob of toads bearing fangs like fishhooks. And, while he took pride in being able to read such things without it going to his head, the events of the previous night had him wondering – for the first time in his life, really wondering – about the strength of the line between a world that made sense and a world that could drive you mad with its impossible manifestations. Addison had always been one to take the utter authority of that line for granted. There was the real world, and there was everything else. The stuff of fantasy, the stuff of fiction, the stuff of make-believe, all of that was to be enjoyed when one was in the right kind of mood, then placed aside and forgotten until the right kind of mood should strike again.
That stuff was most certainly not supposed to break through and find you in your bed, in your real bed in the real world. That sort of thing would be a violation. A breech of contract. That sort of thing was supposed to be impossible.
And yet, here Addison was. Safe and sound with his best friend and their recess ritual, entirely sure that if he managed to lay hands on an unsuspecting toad, the little green prisoner would come up snapping and gnashing with mutant fangs it was not supposed to have. For the first time in his life, Addison didn’t feel prepared to bet on logic. Or, at least, he didn’t feel prepared to bet his fingers.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” Addison felt silly asking it, but it needed to be asked. The silence, the trickling of that endless water, was killing him.
Patrick frowned quizzically up at him. “Like, ghost ghosts?” Patrick darted for a toad and missed.
“Yeah. Like, the paranormal.”
Seemingly stumped by the question, Patrick took a seat on the edge of the creek. His shoes and socks were off, and he let the soles of his feet press lightly against the glassy surface of the water. “I don’t know. I guess, for me, it’s more a question of whether or not there’s an afterlife. If there’s a Heaven and a Hell, and our spirits really go there when we die, then it seems likely some souls get stuck behind.”
This was all too typical for Addison. He and Patrick had debated the afterlife before. This is the question he really wanted to ask: “Was there really a dark figure in my room last night, or am I losing my mind?” But he didn’t ask that. Saying it out loud would make it more real than he was prepared to allow.
But then, Patrick said something more interesting. He scratched his head, thinking, remembering. “Right before my grandmother died, she was fading in and out a lot. When she was sleeping, her heart would get really slow, and the doctors said she was getting closer and closer to letting go. One time, I was sitting alone with her, and she told me Heaven is different than how people describe it. She said it’s not like a big building, or a giant cloud, where a bunch of different spirits are running around and hanging out. She said, it’s more like pudding, and when our spirits dive in, it’s all warm and mushy and we mix together in a Love Soup.”
Addison snorted out a laugh. “Love Soup?”
But Patrick continued, undeterred. “She said everything on the other side is One. So, if you think about it, ghosts don’t make a ton sense. If she was right, anyway. Because ghosts are individuals. So it would make more sense that, just like anything good, anything bad from the other side would be from One thing. Like, one big horrible thing. Like the Devil.”
A chill ran up Addison’s back, flowering in a cold sweat at the base of his skull. He wanted to refuse the notion. He wanted to argue against it, call it hogwash. And he wanted Patrick to agree it was hogwash. He wanted the normal world back. He wanted it back right now. He opened his mouth to say something that would make Patrick’s story go away, but he was interrupted by the bell signaling that recess was over.
He helped Mom give Dad a bath that night. She asked his help with this particularly bothersome task from time to time, usually when Dad was being fussy. Addison hated it, but he never told her so. He knew it would only hurt her feelings, reminding her that things were pretty much as bad as they seemed.
He hated it because it felt unnatural. It wasn’t natural for a kid to see his father this way, lollygagging in the bathtub like an infant, sputtering and giggling and making a mess. It wasn’t natural for a kid to soap up his father’s limbs, feeling the scaly cold skin slide over bone like the rubber gloves they make you wear in science class.
But the worst thing was the way Dad’s penis floated in the water, undulating between his legs like a dead snake. It was still a good deal bigger than Addison’s and he couldn’t help but feel intimidated by it. There it was. The thing that made him. The thing that shot him into his mother, shot lightning like a magic wand in a fairy tale, looking sad and forgotten. It looked like a lonely gym sock, wet and discarded on the floor of the locker room shower.
But really, the worst thing – the very worst thing – was the way Mom looked at it. The way she washed it. Quick and professional, as if not wanting her hands to linger. As if not wanting her hands to remember when it – all by itself – was enough to change her into something Addison didn’t want to think about.
Honestly, the whole thing was downright revolting.
The phone rang downstairs. “Watch him for a sec?” Mom disappeared out the door and down the hall, leaving Addison with Dad. His head was drooping to the right, his jowls resting soggy on his shoulder.
But then… there was something. Right? There was something, just then, about the look in Dad’s eyes. His eyes looked alive the way they used to. They looked energized. For just a moment, Addison forgot everything he knew about the real world and expected Dad to suggest a game of chess. They used to play chess before the stroke. Sometimes a single game would go for days and days. That was back when Addison didn’t have to think so much about the difference between the real world and imaginary ones. Because, back then, there really wasn’t much of a difference. That real world was good. It was good and right, and there wasn’t any kind of happiness Addison couldn’t have.
But Dad didn’t suggest a game of chess. He did say something, but it came out like, “Ah wah eet ooo.” Addison plastered a smile on his face, an indulgent, practiced smile.
“What’d you say, Dad?”
“Ah wah eeeeet. Ah wah eeeeeet oooooo.” That was when Mom came back in, looking vaguely frustrated by the lack of progress in the bath. “Gungy! Gungy!” Addison couldn’t make out the words. He looked to Mom for help.
She sighed, knifing a soapy hand into the water between Dad’s legs.
“He’s hungry,” she said.
Addison read late into the night. Mom popped her head in the door around midnight, suggesting he get to sleep. It was a school night, after all. “You’re not afraid of having another nightmare, are you?”
Addison assured her that he wasn’t. “I’m just caught up in this story. I’ll get to sleep soon.” She planted a kiss on his cheek and left him to his own devices.
But he was afraid of having another nightmare. He was. There was something about the mood in the air. Breathing it, his lungs felt heavy with dark possibilities. The very frequency of the night was charged with badness. Truth be told, he wasn’t even reading the book in his hands. He was simply holding it, clutching it like a crucifix in a vampire movie. He didn’t want to turn out the lights. He didn’t want to relent to the slowly intensifying urge to sleep, pulling on his eyelids like some pesky goblin. He knew what would happen if he put the book aside and turned out the lamp beside his bed. He was absolutely certain.
The dark figure would come back. It would appear just inside his doorway and it would torment him just like it had the night before. It would stand above him, watching him, studying him, leering from its impossibly empty blackness.
Addison was right.
Finally, somewhere around one in the morning, he gave in, placing the book aside and switching off the lamp. He settled in for sleep, fluffing the pillow up close around his eyes and pulling his feet up under the comforter. For a while, nothing happened. Addison, tired as he was, remained watchful for as long as he could. Maybe it was five minutes, maybe it was an hour, he couldn’t tell. But, for as long as he kept his eyes trained on the coat hooks just inside the door, there was nothing there. Slowly, agonizingly, he drifted off to sleep.
But, even in sleep, our senses are hard at work. Addison’s began to tingle in the deepest, deadest corner of the night. He was dreaming of a balloon. One of the ones Dad used to bring home in bunches for his birthdays. The balloon in his dream was shaped like a heart and made of reflective foil. On one side, it said, “Happy Birthday!” in big, garish yellow scrawl. On the other side, there was nothing but the reflection of Addison’s face. He looked into the balloon and the face he saw smiling back was too horrible to describe. It was the face of an infant, but the infant’s eyes were a thousand years old. It was the face of a small dead thing, but it still managed to smile, flashing a row of glistening fangs. It was an impossible thing. But, still, somehow it was him. Somehow it was his face.
That’s when his tingling senses pulled him out of sleep and into the moonlit blackness of his bedroom. The dark figure was back. It was standing just inside the door, once again backed up against the coats hanging from the hooks on the wall. Only, this time, it knew positively that it had been seen. As soon as Addison emerged from his dream, unable to keep from shivering through the film of cold sweat on his skin, the dark figure nearly leapt with excitement. Sure it had an audience, it bounded into the center of the room and twirled in a sickeningly girlish pirouette. It bobbed from side to side, swaying its arms and kicking its legs.
Addison couldn’t stand it. He was shaking with such magnificent fear, he all but forgot himself. Suddenly, he realized he was angry. Hell, he was pissed off! This thing dancing around his room had no right, it had no right to invade his solace. It had no right to choose him, of all the countless kids, near and far, for its victim.
Before he could think to stop it, Addison’s voice emerged in a croak from his tightening throat. “Go back where you came from,” was the unexpected command that came out of his small and quaking body.
In a motion too fast to be anything corporal, let alone living, the dark figure ceased its dancing and darted forward. Addison withdrew, wanting to scream but only managing a pathetic peep. The dark figure was close, maddeningly close, kneeling beside his bed on all fours. It had taken on a feral quality, perched at the edge of his bed like a bloodhound. In fact, Addison could swear he heard the thing… sniffing. It was smelling him! It cocked its head to the side, like a puppy inspecting a bizarre new toy… and there it stayed.
A minute went by, then another. Each second ticking audibly off the clock in the hallway felt like a handful of razor-sharp eternities with the dark figure perched there at the edge of his bed, its head cocked with menacing curiosity.
Addison did the only thing he could do: he stared back at it. He peered into the blackness of its face, looking desperately for features. He looked for something, anything that would help him figure out what it was. But there were no features. The thing was nothingness. Pure and simple. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Then, Addison was sure he understood. Patrick’s casual musing by the creek had contained a horrible truth. The dark figure in his room was the Devil. It was the sum of all evil. It was the black bottom of the Universe. It was everything diseased and broken and mutated and poisoned and dead and dying and hateful and contagious reduced to a focused pinpoint of anthropomorphic dread.
And it was here in Addison’s room, focused intently on nothing on God’s green earth but him. It was this realization that gave him pause. Wasn’t there something a tad egocentric about the notion? Wasn’t there something rather egotistical about the idea of the Devil blowing his cover for him, and him alone? Yes, maybe there was. And yet, all the same, Addison was certain the dark figure was the Devil. Worse still, he was certain all of this was real. This was the real world, the only world, and the Devil was really there on the floor beside his bed.
That was when Addison first wondered if he was perhaps losing his mind.
Right before he fell unconscious, succumbing to a mixture of paralyzing exhaustion and feverish panic, Addison could swear he heard the Devil whisper, “I’m going to eat you.”
Addison Worley tried his best to keep it together as the days and nights came and went. “Do it for Mom,” he told himself. “She needs someone to help her through it all.” But every night, the Devil came back. And, pretty soon, the effects on Addison’s young mind began to show. The slowly mounting lunacy shined in his eyes like a sickly green light. Over time, his teachers started to whisper. Something had crept into the promising young boy. Something bad. Whatever it was, it had a death grip on his heart.
It came to a head on a sunny afternoon. Addison was with Patrick, out by the creek. Their recess ritual. Patrick was darting around the creek bank, going on about something he saw on the Discovery Channel. “There were these guys who came from another country,” he said. “Someplace in Asia. And they were so superstitious, they kept thinking there were monsters coming out of their nightmares. A bunch of them had this thing where they would get so scared, they would stop breathing. Some of them died. Doctors said it had something to do with guilt. These guys felt guilty about leaving home, leaving their families behind, so they felt like something bad was going to come and punish them for it.”
A couple of teachers came running out to the creek when they heard screams. It was Patrick. Addison was on top of him, clawing at his face. Patrick was doing his best to fend him off, but Addison was a boy possessed. His eyes were wide and empty and his lips were pulled back in a grin one of the teachers would later describe as, “unsettling.” He was baring his teeth. He was seething and growling and slashing like a rabid animal. He was chanting, “I’m not guilty! I’m not! I’m not! I’m not!”
He was sent to a restful place. That’s what Mom called it. She said she felt guilty. It was too much to ask of a boy to adjust so quickly, to put on a strong face and lend a hand without taking enough time to really mourn. “A boy’s self-image is closely linked to the image he has of his father,” one of the doctors at the restful place said. “A trauma suffered by a boy’s father is, in many ways, a trauma suffered by the boy himself. It’s not simply a matter of taking time to mourn; it’s a matter of taking time to adjust to a new mode of reality. To a harsher version of the truth.”
For a long time, Addison didn’t say a word. He would sit with the doctors and he would listen to them, but he kept his mouth zipped. It was clear he still had the presence of mind to understand. “He’s just biding his time,” the doctors said. “He’s searching for the right words. When he finds them, he will join the conversation and the healing will begin.”
After a while, Addison did find the right words.
“I’ve just been having a hard time lately, trying to accept the fact that life is basically sad. I don’t think I need therapy. There’s nothing a doctor can say to me that will change the way the world works. Nothing a doctor says will take away the fact that everyone is going to die. I’m not interested in hiding from that fact. I’m only interested in learning how to live with it. Maybe therapy is the way to get there, but somehow I doubt it. I just think I need some time to wallow in the sadness of it. If I wallow long enough, undisturbed, maybe I’ll get bored of it. Maybe then, if I get bored of it, death won’t seem so bad.”
The Devil stopped coming to Addison when he was in the restful place. Eventually, he came to believe the Devil had never come at all. Addison had simply come unhinged. That’s all there was to it. It was the pressure of everything. It was the suddenness of the tragedy, and the troubling way everything went back to normal so quickly, as if there was nothing significant, nothing earth shattering about his father’s monstrous transformation.
Real was real. Illusion was illusion. One was rooted in the fabric of the world. The other in sickness.
Addison was getting well again.
When Dad died, the doctors felt it would be okay for Addison to leave the hospital and spend a few days at home. “It’s important he be there to lay his father to rest,” they said. “Perhaps it will bring him the closure he never had. Disease is a kind of half-death. Maybe bearing witness to a full-death will help him put his existential paranoia in perspective.”
At the wake, Addison snuck away from his family and friends to pay Dad one last visit. The back room of the mortuary was empty and the lights had been turned out. The coffin, still open from the viewing, rested against the far wall.
Addison approached slowly between the rows of aluminum foldout chairs. When he arrived at the coffin and peered in, he was struck by the…
By the emptiness of Dad’s expression. He was like a plastic doll. Like a reflection of himself. Like a shadow.
With the lights out, it was hard to distinguish the body’s features. But Addison couldn’t help noticing how, even in death, Dad’s disease had followed him into the coffin. His head was still drooping to the right. Twisted sharply.
Cocked innocently. Like a baby. Or a puppy.
He spent the night in his bed for the first time in quite a while. Mom sat with him for hours, eventually catching herself in a nod and, after kissing him softly on the cheek, shuffling quietly off to bed.
He didn’t know if the Devil would come to him. But, for the very first time, Addison Worley hoped he would.
Andrew Barrer lives and works as a screenwriter in Brooklyn, New York. His first film - a horror flick called HAUNT - was released by IFC Midnight in February 2014. His fiction has also appeared in Punchnel's.
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