"A Truly Awful Presence," by E.C Jarvis

E.C. Jarvis

E.C. Jarvis

E.C. Jarvis is an Assistant Professor at Eureka College, where he edits ELM. His work has appeared in Isotope, Bitter Oleander, and Heliotrope. KNOCK magazine nominated his work for a Pushcart Prize.

A Truly Awful Presence

“Harken! And observe how healthily-how calmly I can tell you the whole story."

-Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart”


The summer the demon got into our house was the same summer the last of my baby teeth fell out. I only mention it because I remember how creeped out I was by the possibility of leaving my teeth under my pillow, or anywhere, that the demon might steal them. To this day, I don't like my wife to put our son's teeth under his pillow even though I know full well that she and I are the tooth fairy. I guess that marks how deeply the demon's presence, short-lived as it was, impacted me.

It was a little thing. White and bony with large red eyes and a powerful-looking jaw. We originally thought it was a Beige Fury from looking through Demons of the Third Realm, but it was hard to tell, because all of the pictures were of the demons standing perfectly still. I only ever saw it moving, usually towards me. The demon must've got in through one of our basement windows. We lived in the woods, which isn't really demon country, because it's away from a high-density population, but you're not totally safe anywhere. That's life. Maybe our location saved us from suffering through something even worse. However the demon ended up in our house, it was an awful thing to have around as a young boy. My parents did their best to shield me, always staying with me and trying to find games to keep me distracted after I finished my homework. Imagine my dismay: not only did we have a demon, but its presence didn't even let me get out of dividing fractions. But while we were playing Life or Candyland, I'd hear the growling and banging in the basement. My mom would look at my dad, and he'd roll his eyes and go downstairs with a shovel and a stake which, by the end of the demon's run had become as normal to us as a broom or wind chimes. The rest of the game, I'd be clenching my fists and trying not to cry. Dad would come up and say which body part he'd nailed, but the demon always regenerated anyway. Sometimes it would cut off one of its own hands just so that I'd find it, even more claw-like after it sat and shriveled a couple of days. Stuff like this meant that having friends over was out of the question for me, which sucked. I always felt a little embarrassed, and I think my dad was, too.

We'd put up with the damned thing for nearly half a year before my dad broke down and called a professional. It came after my dad made a five-second trip to get me a glass of water before bed. By that point in time, my parents took turns waiting up and sleeping with me. My mom was downstairs with a spray bottle of holy water, a meat tenderizer, and a tall glass of wine (though my parents didn't think I knew). I was finding ways to stall bedtime, so I asked my dad for some water. He looked at me for a few seconds before obliging. The bathroom was just the next door over, so he went and filled up the glass used for brushing my teeth. When we'd go a week or two without it getting close to me, we'd all get careless. The second he walked out the door, that fucking demon came tearing out of the closet and laughing. But not really laughing, not even cackling. It was making a sound that comes from something that doesn't know joy. A sound that comes from something that knows it doesn't know joy and just wants to mock the very idea.

I started screaming before it got anywhere near the bed, and my dad came running back in. It's one of the few times I've ever actually heard him curse. He yelled “You awful shit,” and kicked the demon in the face and then beat it on the back of the head as hard as he could. It scrambled away, then crouched and growled. My dad picked up a wooden play sword that a cousin had given me for Christmas the year before, and he swung it hard at the demon's head. He connected so hard that one of the demon's eyes bulged like it was going to pop. The demon wobbled, fell, then got up again, then fell again. My dad paused, probably surprised himself, and the demon clawed off and out the window. I never looked at my father the same way after that, and I suppose the demon didn't either. It shit on the carpet just before it fell out of my window. My dad look at the shit, looked at me, then yelled my mom's name for her to come up and clean. I didn't say anything, but I knew each parent blamed the other. It was the very next day that my dad sucked it up and called an expert. I felt bad for being the reason he had to break down.

My poor dad, standing there by the kitchen table and watching some other guy talking to my mom about the demon's habits. He stood by me, occasionally tousling my hair, but I could tell he wasn't paying attention to me. Luckily, the demon must've sensed that the guy was there to set things straight. It was very quiet in the house, which usually meant that the demon was setting something up, but you could feel the tension. I looked up to my dad, who was picking at a whisker he must've missed shaving. I leaned against him, and he patted my shoulder. The guy started taking things out of a bag. A gun, a mallet, and a large sword with a gold handle. I leaned forward a little when he took out the sword, as any kid might, and the guy said, "Don't touch it, please."

My father frowned, and I stood behind him. The guy whispered something to the sword, which might've just been for show, as I look back on it now. Whatever it was, I was impressed at the time. We weren't big church goers, so I was always interested in anything that looked like prayer or ceremony. Early in the demon occupation, my mom had gone to the neighbors to ask about demons and angels. The neighbor gave her a book and some herbs, but she never quite figured out what to do. I knew it was a bust, because when my mom returned the book, she gave it back with a single paper plate of oatmeal raisin cookies. I thought about the mason jars of herbs in our basement as the guy kept prepping. They may still be there. I haven't gone into my parents' basement for over a decade, and I still won't let my son look down there, either.

The guy took a candle out of his pocket. It was plain and black. "Want to hold this?" he asked me. I looked up at my dad again, who just shrugged and bent his whisker. I looked back at the guy and shook my head. "He's had some close calls," my dad said. The guy nodded, but I could tell he thought I was being a baby. I really hated him in that moment, which I suppose is what my father felt. I liked that my father and I hated together, and I still like it, as I look back. But it wasn't really the guy's fault. He sheathed the sword, took out a lighter, and lit the candle. It smelled awful. Like the kind of shit you take after two days of hard drinking, but there was also a hint of blood or terror or something. I let go of my dad and covered my mouth. I saw my dad spit on the floor; the only time I ever saw him do that in the house. The stink and smoke kept going for a minute or two, and then the demon came crawling, and I mean literally crawling into the room. It was panting and pawing at the ground. The guy set the candle on the floor, then backed up and grabbed the gun and the sword, unsheathed now. "Stand back," he said. We all obeyed. The demon didn't even look at us, it just crawled towards the candle, drooling as it went.

Before the demon reached the candle, the guy drove the sword through its skull and into the floor. The demon thrashed around, swinging its claws and kicking at the ground. The guy shot at its hands and feet. I'd never heard a gunshot that close up (and indoors) before, and I thought it was deafening. He actually missed more than he hit, and splinters of wood flew up from the floor. But the swinging slowed down. All this happened fairly quickly. The demon was still moving, even as it was clearly dead or dying. Once it mostly stopped, the guy approached it from behind and beat its head and back with the mallet. The demon split open in lots of places. Gunk oozed and splattered out, and it stunk. I shook a little. The man stayed so calm as he clobbered the thing. It was a little disturbing. I know the demon would've eviscerated me without a second thought, without even a first thought. I know that it was void of any goodness. But the guy didn't even grunt. Just nothing. I actually felt bad for the demon. And I felt kind of bad for the guy, being able to do that.

Then the guy put his boot on the demon's skull, pulled the sword out, and then swung down on its neck. When the man took his boot off the head, it rolled off and hit the bottom of the kitchen cabinets. The body started smoking, and it turned to ash, though without a real flame. The guy collected the ash in a little vial, then pulled out a bag that he carefully used to contain the head. Thankfully, he cleaned and we huddled, giving a prayer while he did. It may be that this is why I rarely ask my son to pray, particularly not with me. The man loaded the remains up and took them to his truck. When he came back in, my mom was the one to hand him the check. The guy looked at it, then cleared his throat.

"This was actually an Asmodian offender, so if you don't want to pay the full demon rate..."

My dad made a clicking noise with his tongue. He usually gave other guys the benefit of the doubt. He didn't like people looking over his shoulder, so he wouldn't look over theirs, but this was different, it involved my mother. It's not that there was any real threat of her cheating on him or anything like that. It was just that this guy was protecting my father's family, because he couldn't. And now, giving him a discount seemed like pity on top of insult. It was too much, and I understood. I kind of wanted to see my dad fight the guy. Everything he did with the demon was so prescribed, so ritualized, that I thought maybe my dad could take him if he didn't have his precious tools. I was especially keen on my dad's fighting abilities after the wooden sword. Beyond knowing that it would make my dad feel good, it would've been awesome to go to school and say that my dad beat the shit out of a demon slayer (even if this guy had apparently only killed an offender). But the guy may still have had a gun on him, and my dad was a fairly laid back, forgiving guy. I don't know if I would've thought it was all that cool to see my dad beat the hell out of someone anyway, if I'd actually seen it up close.

In fact, the only real result of my dad's tongue clicking was for my mom to look at him and then say, "We just appreciate having it gone."

The guy looked at my dad while nodding. "I don't think you'll need me again, but if you do..." Then he looked back at my mom, who looked at the floor, not even replying. "Have a good one," my father said.

The guy left, and my mom gave me a hug. She drove me to the library, then a store, telling me we were going to lay out some circles of protection, get more herbs and do it right. On the ride into town, we really didn't talk, but, on the ride back, she asked, "Do you think we did the right thing?"

I wasn't entirely sure what she meant, so I just said, "Of course." A few minutes later, maybe halfway home I said, "That thing would've killed us. I'm glad to have it gone."

My mom smiled, still looking at the road. "We can have some peace back."

"How much did it cost?"

"Don't worry about it."

"I mean, are we broke now?"

My mom laughed. "You should've asked me at the store. I would've picked up some brownies or something."

I looked out the window. The trees were turning yellow, but only at the edges of their leaves. Mostly, they were still green. "I didn't mean like that. I was just wondering how much the demon set us back."

My mom reached over and rustled my hair. "You don't have to worry about it. We don't have money to burn, but we're doing fine."

I nodded. We were quiet for the rest of the ride home. That night, we laid out the circles, made some bad jokes, and ate snacks instead of dinner. Pizza rolls, which I knew my mom didn't like, but I loved, and I still do. We were quiet, and we giggled. For that night, even when night fell, we were really happy. Things were in that sweet, pleasant realm they went to before they got back to normal. Not that normal was so bad, but it was just normal. Before I went to bed, where I really actually slept that night, my dad took the wooden sword he'd used, and he drew some kind of design on it. It looked like calligraphy, but not any words or even letters I recognized. I looked at him, and he smiled back at me, shrugging. “For protection,” he said, “or just to keep busy.” I kind of laughed, but I kind of didn't. I still have that sword, or, rather, my son does. Though, to be honest, I don't think I'd know what to do with it if push came to shove. I very much hope that it never will.