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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Doxology

Sometimes the demons just won't leave you alone.

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Doxology


            “Hey!  Hey you!  You can’t park there!  That’s my property!”
            Minnie Klein’s house sat on a small triangle of land caught in the arrowhead intersection between Blaine and South Gary Streets; a little pointed bit of lawn, a tiny garden in front of her front porch surrounded by a short stretch of wire fencing, and an absurdly long, narrow house that ran to the very end of the property.  The back end of the house was wide enough for a door and a window, and past that there was just barely enough space for her to park her own car, an old green Toyota Celica that looked like it had eczema.
            She guarded her tiny space like a lion.  “No Parking” signs were tacked up to the siding, “No Solicitors/No Salespeople” signs at the front and back door, and now there was this man, this intruder, parking his great big boxy Honda Element alongside her house, where the trash cans were.
            She went up to the car at a trot, her face set in a scowl, ready to do battle for territory.  She rapped on the window, and a face turned toward her that made her step back, made her forget the angry demand that she’d been about to make.
            The man was middle-aged, blond, with wide hazel eyes that stared at her with an expression of horrified despair.  Minnie had seen scared people, she’d seen angry people (plenty of those, given her general approach to her fellow humans); she’d never seen anyone remotely like this.  This man’s eyes looked as if he had been gazing into the maw of hell.
            The door opened a little, and the man turned toward her, and the thought, Don’t speak, please, mister, don’t talk to me, went through her head, like a bird fluttering into a room and then out and away.
            But the man spoke anyway.
            “You’ve got to help me,” he said, his voice quiet and strangely flat.  “Help us.  My son… he’s hurt.”
            Minnie looked past the man, and in the passenger seat she saw a boy of about seventeen.  He was shirtless, and his smooth, well-muscled chest was bloodied from a cut that started just below his collarbone.  It went in a winding, loopy curve, down between his nipples, ending just left of his navel.  His breathing was shallow; he seemed to be unconscious.  His head lolled to one side, but Minnie could see the outline of a handsome, clean-cut face, high cheekbones, a straight, narrow nose.  Blood from his injury had trickled down his belly, soaked his jeans.
            But then the boy suddenly opened his eyes, and looked up at Minnie, a desperate plea in eyes glazed with pain.  “Help me,” he whispered, and shifted a little in the seat.  And Minnie saw, around his neck, a thin gold chain, from which hung a crucifix.
            Upside down.
            Then the boy’s head drooped again, and his eyes half closed.  A thin trickle of blood came from the corner of his mouth.
            Minnie backed away, her mouth moving but making no sounds.
            “Please,” the man said.  “Please.  Call 911.  You’ve got to help us.  I think… I think he’s dying.”
            Minnie turned and sprinted up her stairs as fast as her short legs would carry her, flung open her front door, ran to the phone, and punched the three numbers so hard one of her nails broke.
            The 911 operator, a woman whose voice sounded as if she wouldn’t have had her equanimity disturbed if Minnie had said that she’d seen someone with a nuclear weapon, took her information and said that someone would be right out to investigate.
            Minnie went to her living room window, and pushed aside the curtains, peering with one eye out toward her garbage cans and where the man had been parked.
            His car was gone.
            She took an involuntary step back, and her hip collided with a plant stand, sending an African violet in a clay pot crashing to the floor.  Not even turning to look, she ran back out onto her front porch, and looked down South Gary Street, in the direction the Honda Element had been pointed.
            The street was empty.
            She trotted around to the other side of the house, panting with the exertion, and looked down Blaine Street.  It was also empty of cars, but a bicycle was coming toward her, ridden by a girl in her twenties, with flowing black curls coming from under a bright red helmet.
            Minnie watched the girl approaching, a stunned look on her face.  The girl saw Minnie staring, and gave her a wide grin, applied the hand brakes, and scrunched to a halt next to her.
            “Did you… did you see a blue car?” Minnie said, stumbling over the words.  “A blue car, a big one, kind of an SUV-looking thing, squarish?”
            “Nope,” the girl said cheerfully, tilting her head a little to the side.  “Nobody much on the road today.  It’s like everyone’s vanished.”  She laughed.  “Say, lady, speaking of people vanishing – you want to see a magic trick?”
            Minnie stared at her as if she hadn’t understood, and then frowned, and shook her head, her mouth open a little.  “No,” she said hoarsely.
            “No, somehow I didn’t think you would,” the girl said, and winked at her, and pushed off down the street and soon was lost to view.
            Minnie was still standing there, staring down the empty street, when the police and the ambulance arrived five minutes later.
            She was not someone who was ordinarily at a loss for words, but she found it frustratingly difficult to explain to the police what had happened.  The policeman who took her statement was skeptical; the ambulance driver, on the other hand, was clearly pissed, and after a brief sotto voce word with the cop, drove off, giving Minnie a nasty glance in the rear-view mirror.
            “How long were you inside?” the cop said, his starch-pressed sleeve creaking slightly as he set his clipboard into the crook of his elbow.
            “It couldn’t have been more than a minute,” she said.
            “What was the make and model of the car?”
            “It was a blue, whatchamacallum, Honda.  You know, the ones that look like toasters.”
            “Element?”
            “Yeah, I think that’s right.  And the guy, the man driving – he looked really scared, like he’d just seen the devil himself.”  Minnie swallowed.  “And the boy, his son… he had a necklace on, with an upside-down crucifix.”
            The cop’s thick brows drew together, and he gave her an incredulous look.
            “You mean, like the satanic sign?”
            “That’s right.”
            “Well, lots of kids wear that shit nowadays.  Pardon my French.”
            Minnie let the vulgarity go.  She stared the cop right in the eye, even though he was a good foot taller than she was.  “I’ll bet that most of them kids don’t have knife wounds on them.”
            “No, you’re right about that,” the cop admitted.
            “So what are you gonna do about it?”
            “You sure…”   He stopped, and looked down at his clipboard.  “Mrs. Klein, you sure you’re remembering this right?  You weren’t, maybe, dreaming all of this?  Like you’d just woke up from a nap, or something?”
            Minnie drew herself up angrily, and glared up at the cop.  “I didn’t dream this, because I wasn’t asleep.  It happened, just the way I said.”  She huffed a little.  “And it’s Miss Klein.”
            “Well, okay, I’ll file a report.  If the guy’s kid was as bad off as you say, maybe the dad decided not to wait for the ambulance, and tried to drive him to Colville General.”
            Somewhat mollified, Minnie signed the statement on the clipboard, and watched as the cop got back in his car and drove off down South Gary Street.
            She stood there for almost ten minutes, lost in thought, and then she realized that she hadn’t told the cop about the girl on the bicycle.
            That smile of hers, she thought.  That knowing smile.  She knew perfectly well what I was talking about.  I’ll bet she knew where that man had gone.  Maybe she even had something to do with the boy getting hurt.  She looked almost… diabolical.
            Seized with a sudden idea, Minnie turned, and walked back up the stairs and into her house.  In her living room she saw, as if noticing it for the first time, the overturned African violet, but didn’t stop to clean it up.  She went right to the telephone, and dialed a number.
            It was answered by a male voice after two rings.
            “Hello?”
            “Reverend Lohr?  It’s Minnie Klein.”
            “Well, how are you today, Minnie?  It’s nice to hear from you.”
            “I’m shook up, Reverend, and that’s a fact.  I need to ask you a question, and I want a straight answer.”
            Reverend Lohr didn’t respond for a moment, but finally said, “All right, Minnie, I’ll answer if I can.”
            “How can you tell if you’ve seen one of Satan’s minions?”
            Now the pause was longer.  “… I beg your pardon?” he finally said.
            “I said, how can you tell if you’ve seen one of the minions of Satan?  One of them, you know, junior devils.  You talk about ‘em at services sometimes, how we’re to be on the lookout for the minions of Satan.  Well, I’m pretty sure I just saw one, and I want to know what to do about it.”
            “Well,” he said, “maybe you should tell me what happened, all right?”
            Minnie launched into an abbreviated account of her day’s encounter.  “And I think,” she concluded, “that the girl on the bicycle was a demon in disguise.  She looked at me, like… I dare you to do anything about this.  I would have said a prayer, but I was so startled I didn’t have the presence of mind even to think about it until she was long gone.”
            “Well, Minnie, I think it might be a little… premature to conclude that she was a demon in disguise,” Reverend Lohr said.  “She didn’t actually do anything, did she?”
            “No,” Minnie admitted.  “She just asked me if I wanted to see a magic trick.”
            “Maybe she’s just some ill-mannered neighborhood kid, trying to tease you.”
            “She wasn’t a kid.  She was, maybe, twenty-five years old.  And she wasn’t teasing.  I tell you, Reverend, if you’d seen her, you’d know what I mean.  She had the, how did you call it in your sermon a few weeks ago?  The veneer of evil.  It was there, I tell you.”
            Reverend Lohr cleared his throat.  “Well, Minnie, whatever she was, I think you did the right thing to call the police.  And you should remember the boy and his father in your prayers.  And I will, as well.  If you see her again, you be careful.  If…”  He cleared his throat again, in an embarrassed sort of way, “… if she was of the devil, then you should be cautious about speaking to her.  The devil’s own have ways of bewitching you.”
            Minnie seemed gratified that the Reverend, at least, was taking her seriously, and assured him that if she saw the girl again, she’d make sure to protect herself by putting on the armor of Jesus.  The Reverend said that was all right, then, and told her to have a nice day, and that he’d see her next Sunday.

            Minnie called the police four times that afternoon, to find out what they’d discovered about the injured boy and his father.  No one, she was told, had seen or heard anything about anyone matching that description, and Colville General hadn’t had any wounded teenage boy show up in the emergency room.  After the fourth call, the receptionist assured Minnie that if they found out anything more, they would let her know, and that she shouldn’t call them again unless the boy or his father reappeared.
            Minnie hung the phone up in a huff, and decided that all she could do was to say a prayer and leave it in God’s hands.
            Later that afternoon, she went to the grocery store.  It was only three blocks away, and the weather was fine, so she walked, crossing South Gary Street and then turning right onto Day Street.  There were few cars out – the Bicycle Girl’s words came back to her unwilling mind, Nobody much on the road today.  Seems like everyone’s vanished.  She gave a little shiver, and walked faster, even though the sun was shining and a warm breeze was brushing her face.  Something wrong, she thought.  There’s just something wrong about today.  Ever since I saw that guy in the blue car, there’s been something wrong, like looking at a wall where every picture frame is tilted a little bit.
            A few yards ahead of her, an elderly man was walking an apricot-colored miniature poodle on a long leash, and as she approached him, he looked up and smiled at her.  He was tall, stoop-shouldered, and balding, wearing a rather threadbare plaid work shirt and khaki slacks.
            “Afternoon,” he said, affably.
            “How are you today?” Minnie said.  She normally didn’t like to talk to strangers, but there didn’t seem to be much choice but to respond to him in kind.
            “I’m fine, fine,” the man said.  “It’s a beautiful day for a walk.”
            “Yes, it is.”
            “Only I should have brought my sunglasses, it’s a bit bright out for me.  My eyes are a bit wonky, you know.”
            Minnie looked up at the man’s eyes – and only then noticed that the pupils weren’t round – they were slits, like a lizard’s eyes, like a goat’s eyes.
            Minnie came to a sudden halt; it felt like her feet wouldn’t move.  “I…” she began, and then her brain seemed to stop as suddenly as her feet had.  She not only couldn’t form words, she couldn’t form a coherent thought.
            “Don’t be put off,” the old man said, still smiling at her.  “It’s a hereditary condition.  My father was like this, too.  Makes us sun-sensitive, you know – we’re far more comfortable at night.  Sorry I startled you.”
            Minnie still didn’t respond, just stood there staring at the man, her mouth hanging open a little.
            “My, I’m so sorry to have upset you.  I sometimes forget that people who aren’t used to me can be alarmed by my appearance.  Anyway, my apologies for disturbing you.  Have a nice walk.”
            He passed her, and the poodle sniffed briefly at her leg, and then they went off down Day Street.  The man began humming a tune, slightly off key, and it wasn’t until he turned the corner that Minnie realized that the music was to the Doxology: “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below…”
            Minnie walked the rest of the way to the grocery store, moving like an automaton, and returned home with her eggs and half-gallon of milk and can of coffee with hardly any awareness of what she was doing.
            Once the groceries were put away, she called Reverend Lohr again.
            “Reverend,” she said, “it’s Minnie Klein again.”
            “Well, Minnie,” the Reverend said, his cheerfulness at receiving another call from her seeming a little forced.  “What can I do for you?”  His voice became suddenly serious.  “You didn’t… didn’t see the girl again, did you?  Or that man or his son?”
            “No.”
            “Oh, good,” the Reverend said, obviously relieved.
            “I saw another one.  A different one.  Another minion of Satan.”
            Long pause.  “You did?”
            “Yes.  It was an old man this time, walking a poodle.  He did the same as the girl.  He just came up to me, like there was nothing in the world amiss.  Then he smiled at me, and when I looked at him…  he had eyes like a snake.  You know, weird pupils, like slits.”
            “Maybe it was just a birth defect,” Reverend Lohr suggested.
            “That’s what he said.”
            Well, then…” Reverend Lohr began, and then stopped, seeming hopeful that Minnie would fill in the rest of the sentence on her own.
            “I know what these people are,” she said, stubbornly.  “And now, I’m beginning to think that man in the car might have been a minion, too.  Not just the girl on the bicycle.  And I’m sure about the old man.”
            “What… what makes you think these people are minions of Satan?”
            “What else could they be?”
            “Well, they could just be ordinary people.”
            “Snake’s eyes, Reverend!  Magic tricks!  And an upside-down crucifix!  That’s a satanic sign, I know it is, I read about it.”
            “It’s just… well, the police didn’t find any sign of the boy, did they?  Did they check with the hospital?  And the girl on the bicycle, and the old man with the dog… they didn’t threaten you, or anything, right?”
            Minnie snorted impatiently.  “No, Reverend.  The boy didn’t show up at the hospital, and no one threatened me.  I just know what I saw.  I know what I felt. 
            “I’m not doubting you, Minnie, it’s just that… it’s just that you’d think that demons would be a little more direct if they were attacking you.”
            “Cutting up a boy is mighty direct, Reverend!” Minnie said.  “That was horrible.  That poor child looked half dead.”  She paused.  “Unless he was a demon, too.  Maybe both the man and his son were.  Maybe they were visions sent by the Evil One.  You told us that that happens, in one of your sermons.”
            “Well, yes, but… why you?  Why would the devil trouble you?”
            “He’s always trying to trip up the Righteous,” Minnie said.  “That’s what you said.”
            “I’m sure that’s true, but it just seems an odd way to go about it.”
            “The old man was humming the Doxology as he was walking away.”
            “That’s a strange thing for a demon to hum.”
            “Didn’t Jesus say that the devil can quote scripture for his own purpose?”
            “I think that was Shakespeare.”
            “Oh.  Well, still.  I know what I saw, Reverend.”
            “I’m sure you do, Minnie.  But I don’t know what I can do about it.”  He paused.  “I’ll say a prayer for you,” he added, a little lamely.
            “Well, that’s all to the good.  But I think I might call the police if it happens again.”
            “Maybe that’s a good idea.”
            “Thank you, Reverend.  See you next Sunday.”
            “Good bye, Minnie.”

            The evening passed, and the night, without anything else odd happening.
            The next morning, Minnie got up early, and was vacuuming her living room carpet – she was perturbed to notice that she hadn’t gotten all of the potting soil off the rug from the African violet mishap the previous day – when the front doorbell rang.  She shut off the vacuum, and went to the door and opened it.
            Standing on the front porch was a smiling woman in her forties, and next to her a girl of about twelve in a Girl Scouts uniform.
            “Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies?” the girl asked, in a nervous voice.
            Minnie scowled at them, and pointed to her sign.  “No salespeople,” she said.
            The mother’s smile dimmed a little.  “But, ma’am, it’s for Girl Scouts.  It’s a good cause.”
            “Doesn’t matter,” Minnie said.  “It’s my property, and I don’t want any salespeople coming here uninvited.  Even kids.  Especially kids.”  Her brows drew together with irritation.  “And I don’t want any cookies.  And I definitely don’t want to stand here discussing this.  It’s my property, and it’s my right to invite who I want and keep out who I don’t want.”
            The woman’s smile vanished entirely.  “Well, okay, ma’am, I’m… I’m sorry we disturbed you.  We’ll leave.”  She held up her hands, in a gesture of acquiescence – and Minnie saw, on the palm of her left hand, a small, fine tattoo, of an inverted star.
            Minnie froze, her shock as complete as when she’d noticed the old man’s eyes the previous day – but she forced herself to react.  She drew a deep breath, her chest swelling with the effort.  “Demon!” Minnie shouted, at the top of her voice.  “Demons, both of you!  Get off my property this instant, and leave me alone!”
            The woman looked at her, eyes wide with what seemed like honest astonishment at Minnie’s outburst.  The little girl gave a terrified whimper.  The woman took a step back, and her left foot went off the top stair.  She lost her balance, and with a little cry of dismay, fell over backwards and tumbled down the cement stairs and into the garden.
            The girl shrieked, and ran down toward her mother, who lay sprawled, face down, across the wire fencing that ran around Minnie’s little square of flower garden.  “Mom?” the girl cried, and tried to lift her mother’s body up.  The child looked up at Minnie, eyes wide with horror, and said, “Please, you’ve got to help my mom!”
            Minnie ran down the stairs, and knelt beside the woman and partially lifted her up – and then recoiled in terror.
            The low fence around her garden was supported by metal stakes, and the angled tops of the stakes had impaled the woman through both hands, and into her right side.  The girl was still staring at Minnie, but her expression had changed from one of shock to one of reproach.  Then the mother groaned, and turned her head around toward Minnie – and with an effort pulled one hand free of the stake that pierced it.  Blood splattered on the leaves of the petunias and snapdragons, crimson onto green.  The woman reached toward Minnie with a hand slick with blood, and said, in a thick, slurry voice, “Why?  Why did you forsake me?”
            And Minnie collapsed to the sidewalk in a dead faint.
            When she came to – it could have been seconds, minutes, an hour later, there was no way to tell – the girl and her mother were gone, and there was no trace of blood on the metal stakes, or on the sidewalk.

            “Reverend Lohr?”
            “Hello, Minnie.”  Reverend Lohr’s voice sounded guarded.  “How are you, today?”
            “Well, frankly, Reverend, I’m pissed.  Pardon the expression.”
            “About what?”
            “The demons are back, and don’t be trying to tell me they’re not demons because they are.  This time it was a Girl Scout and her mother.  I told ‘em to get off my property, and then the mother fell and kinda skewered herself on my garden fence.  And it was just like, you know, the Lord’s wounds.  Through the hands and into the side.”
            “Not through the feet?”
            “Not that I saw.  Maybe she forgot about that part.”
            “I see.”
            “Now don’t you be ‘I see-ing’ me, and I mean no disrespect, Reverend.  I’m being besieged by the Dark Emissaries of Satan, and you need to help me.”
            “Did you call an ambulance after the woman hurt herself?”
            “No.  I fainted.  And when I came to, she and her daughter were both gone.  And so was the blood.”  She humphed a little.  “I haven’t fainted in years.  The Good Lord knows, I’m not the fainting type.  But it was just so dreadful.  And Reverend, I just am not going to sit around here and let the servants of Lucifer trouble me day in, day out.”
            There was a long pause, and finally Reverend Lohr said, “But, Minnie.  Have they hurt you or threatened you in any way?”
            “No, but they’ve come on my property three times and interrupted what should have been a nice walk to the store once, and I’ll be damned if it’s going to continue.”  She cleared her throat.  “Pardon the expression,” she said again.
            “I can understand that you must be upset…” the Reverend began, but there was a knock on the door, and Minnie looked up.  Through the curtains on the front door, she could see a curly-haired boy of college age, with an earnest, open face.  He was peering into the house, his expression curious.
            “Oh, hell,” Minnie said.  “They’re back.”
            “They are?”
            “Yes.  It’s a kid now.  He just knocked on the door.”
            “A kid?”
            “Yeah.  Looks like he’s twenty or so.  He wants to come in.”
            There was another pause, and Reverend Lohr said tentatively, “Does he look dangerous?”
            “No,” Minnie admitted.  “He’s got curly hair and kind of a baby face.  He looks like my sister’s grandson, a little.”
            “Maybe he’s just a kid.”
            “I don’t know about that,” Minnie said doubtfully.  “Everyone I’ve seen in the last couple of days has been a minion of the Evil One.  I can’t afford to take any chances.”
            “No, I suppose not.”
            The boy knocked again, and shaded his eyes, and he saw Minnie looking at him, and smiled.  He mimed using the telephone, and then shrugged his shoulders.
            “I think he wants to use the telephone,” Minnie said.
            “Maybe he had car trouble.”
            “You just don’t believe me, do you, Reverend?” Minnie said, her voice rising in irritation.  “I thought if anyone would…”
            “It’s not that I don’t believe you,” he said.  “It’s just that there might be some other explanation.  And remember our Lord’s story of the Good Samaritan.  He praised the Samaritan who helped the poor man who had fallen to thieves.  What if this boy is someone who needs help?”
            Minnie looked up at the boy, who was still looking in through the window in the front door.  When his eyes met Minnie’s, he smiled in a charming sort of way.
            “Oh, all right, Reverend, but be it on your head if he’s a demon.”  She brightened.  “Maybe I should have him talk to you.”
            Reverend Lohr cleared his throat.  “Well, all right, I suppose.  Although I don’t know what I could say to him.”
            “Hang on, Reverend.”  Minnie set the phone down, and went to the front door, and opened it.
            The boy was tall and slim, and was wearing a Syracuse University sweatshirt and running shorts.  He had a scraped knee, and an apologetic expression.
            “Hi,” he said.  “I wonder if I might use your phone.  I just had a little accident with my bicycle, and I need to call my father to come pick me up.”
            “I’m on the phone myself, which you interrupted,” Minnie said.  “But I’m talking to my minister.  If you’ll talk to him, I’ll let you use the phone after.”
            The boy’s smile faltered a little.  “Talk to him?”
            “Yes.  To assure him, and me, that you’re not a demon from hell.”
            The boy’s eyebrows flew up.  “A demon?”
            “Yes.”  Minnie picked up the phone handset and held it out to him.  “Here.  You talk to Reverend Lohr.”
            The boy, looking mortified, took the handset from her, and held it to his ear, and said, “Um… hello?”
            All she could hear was the boy’s side of the conversation; Reverend Lohr’s voice was nothing but a tinny creak from the phone’s speakers.
            “Yes, I just happened to have a little accident on my bicycle in front of her house.”
            “I don’t know, I didn’t do anything but knock on her door.”
            “I’ve never seen her before in my life.”
            “I’m not sure.”
            As the one-sided conversation proceeded, Minnie glanced through the front door that the boy had left open, and saw, out in the middle of Blaine Street, an object that at first she couldn’t identify.  Then she realized what it was.  It was the remains of a bicycle – melted, fused, twisted almost beyond recognition.  A bit of handlebar stuck up from the scalded metal, still with a charred plastic handgrip attached.  One wheel, its rubber tire nearly liquefied, lay a little bit away, tilted against the sidewalk.
            Minnie stared, and then slowly turned toward the boy, who was still standing there, holding the telephone in one hand.
            And once again, their eyes met, and he smiled at her, and gave a noncommittal little shrug.

            A half-hour later, Minnie was strapped, unconscious, to a gurney in the back of an ambulance, on the way to Colville General Hospital.
            “Who called it in?” one of the paramedics said to his partner, as he pulled the door shut behind him.
            “She was talking to her minister on the phone, I guess, and had some kind of seizure.  He called 911.”
            “An epileptic, you think?”
            “Doesn’t present like epilepsy,” he said.  “She’s just plain unconscious now.  Vitals are all in the normal range.”
            The driver started up the siren, and pulled out onto Blaine Street, his red lights flashing.
            “It’s a blessing she was talking to someone on the phone when it happened,” the first paramedic said.
            The second paramedic nodded, and then grinned.  “Praise the Lord, eh?”
            The first paramedic chuckled.  “Exactly what I was thinking,” he said.

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