Jenny woke to a low moan blowing through the house like a sad wind. She had been dreaming of math class. Sat at her desk during Mr. Halloway’s lecture, she counted down a long list of three-digit numbers scrawled in pencil. They added up to 1,260, but she needed to find their average. It was easy: just divide the sum by the number of values, and she could raise her hand and show the class she knew. But she only counted the numbers over and over, over and over. The low moan might have been her own misery at never finding an answer, but she gasped awake and realized it wasn’t her at all.
“Shh, it’s all right, Jenny.” Abbie’s voice startled her as much as the moaning had. She opened her eyes to darkness, the familiar shadows of her room at night. Abbie was sitting by her knees, another familiar shape.
“Is Mama okay?” Jenny whispered. That was her, not quite crying down the hall.
“She’ll be—” They both jumped as Mama’s voice changed pitch, some Scripture words yelled defensively but too broken to make out. Jenny stifled the scared sound that sometimes lived in her throat. “I’ll go look in on her,” Abbie said after a moment.
“No!” Jenny took her sister’s hand and held on tight. “She’ll be okay. She always is. Stay here.” Stay here with me, she thought, knowing she was too old to need that. She was ten. When Abbie was ten, she had been doing the same as she was now, sitting with Jenny in the dark, and hadn’t needed anyone to hold her.
Abbie didn’t answer, which meant she wasn’t sure what to do, but finally she stood up and very quietly closed the bedroom door all the way. “Let me under the covers,” she whispered. “I’m cold.”
Mama got worse as the hours passed. Her moaning was meant to comfort herself; Jenny was used to Mama taking up a corner of the house to herself, rocking side to side, withdrawing somewhere the demons couldn’t find her. When she was much younger, she had thought it was a normal thing adults did, and sometimes climbed into her mother’s lap to enjoy being close. Mama’s moans would sometimes turn to lullabies, Jenny dozing in the middle of the day as her mama stroked her hair.
That must have been a long time ago, though, because Jenny could no longer see herself approaching Mama when the demons were near. She hadn’t known about the demons when she was little, just saw her mother’s arms and knew they would make a warm space for her. Then one day Abbie let her know.
Abbie was in fourth grade but spent all her lunches and recesses with Jenny and Jenny’s school friends. She stood up to the bratty girls who liked to come by and make comments like they knew everything about everything, showed Jenny how to get them to leave with just a look. She sat in circles with Jenny and her friends and taught them complicated Miss Suzie games, and helped Jenny master skipping to two jump ropes without getting tangled in them. When her friends said they wished their sisters would play with them at recess, Jenny felt pretty proud of her family.
“What are you drawing, Abbie?” Jenny asked one day. The teachers had brought out a box of giant chalk sticks and set aside a big corner of pavement. Jenny was tracing the outline of her hand and gearing up to ask Abbie to go round her whole body like that, so there’d be a girl with a dress lying there to color in with stripes. Abbie, meanwhile, had carefully drawn a series of blobby bodies. They had round heads with protruding pointed horns, and bodies like dinosaurs, with long claws at their fingertips. Jenny watched Abbie dab red chalk dots for eyes. Her sister was caught up in her imagination, it seemed, so she asked again. “What is that?”
Abbie looked around, which made Jenny do the same. Mrs. Hutch stood nearby, arbitrating a conflict between Joey and Kris, back mostly turned. Abbie leaned in to whisper, “These are the demons that visit Mama.”
Abbie leaned closer. “She said she was going to tell you about them soon, because you’re getting older. Mama gets visits from the demons from the Bible. They make her scared.”
“You mean they’re in our house?”
“They’re everywhere Mama goes.”
Jenny studied the drawings by Abbie’s knees. “And they’re real? Not like on TV?” She still sometimes had her doubts about the monsters on TV, no matter how much Abbie assured her they were just people in costumes trying to scare her.
“I never saw them, Abbie! How can they be there if I never saw them?”
Abbie shrugged again. “I asked Mama that and she doesn’t know. I never saw them either. Just, you know, Mama getting upset.”
Jenny knew. Mama got upset sometimes. She didn’t get scared exactly… just, locked all the doors and stuff. It was normal. She looked harder at the drawings. “But are they real?”
Abbie refused to answer, even though it was such a simple question. So Jenny asked it from the back seat of the car on the way home. “Mama, Abbie says there are monsters everywhere and only you can see them. Is that true?”
The car jolted to a stop, eliciting honks from all around them. Mama turned around in her seat to frown not at Jenny, but at Abbie, who tucked her head down and refused to look at either of them. A part of Jenny expected Abbie to get scolded for telling lies and scaring her sister. That part of her was eager to feel a little foolish for being so gullible. But the larger part of Jenny sensed more at stake in Mama’s grimace and hard stare. It was like standing on an uncertain cliff.
“You said you were gonna say,” Abbie ventured, studying the strap of her seatbelt. “We were drawing and she asked me what I made and I thought it would be okay—“
Two car horns interrupted. Mama turned frontward again and blasted her own horn before getting them back in motion. Abbie and Jenny sat quietly as Mama resumed driving.
“It’s fine,” Mama said at last, though nothing felt fine. “It’s fine you told. I shouldn’t have waited anyway. Let’s get some donuts on the way home, all right? All right.”
Sometimes Jenny wished Abbie had waited to tell her about the demons (not monsters, Mama had explained later; these were creatures from down in Hell, not Hollywood). She wanted to go to her mother and climb into her arms whenever she felt like it, not just when the demons happened to be away, when Mama was calm and open and friendly, if a little watchful. She wanted to watch The Little Mermaid over and over while Mama sat sketching on the couch, helping her sing along.
But she knew about the demons now, and how they too liked to stick close to Mama. It was always obvious when they were near, because of how Mama got. When they came, and Mama got that way, Jenny’s stomach twisted until she had to go lie down on the other side of the house or sneak outside with Abbie to play in a corner of the backyard.
Lying beside Abbie in the dark, listening to Mama get worse—louder, more and more prayerful, reciting psalms through tears—Jenny wished she knew how to get rid of demons. She said as much to Abbie, who sniffled. “You don’t have to, Jenny. I don’t think they’re real.”
“They’re only real to her. In her head. Like you used to think Ariel lived in the ocean somewhere.”
“But, but, Mama’s…” a grown-up. Smart and beautiful and not easily tricked.
“She’s suffering,” Abbie said, as if to herself. And then, firmly, “Demons aren’t real. You don’t have to be afraid of them.”
Jenny turned Abbie’s declaration over in her mind, examining it for flaws or tricks. Mama’s crying died down, the house settling into what Jenny imagined night was supposed to sound like, quiet, with little harmless noises you hardly noticed. She grew drowsy, but then became more alert when footsteps approached on the old floorboards. The door opened as quietly as Abbie had shut it before, and a heavy tread entered the bedroom. Jenny watched the familiar shadow sit in the rocker by the window, heard the figure exhale wearily. Nothing came in after her or peeked through the window. It became quite clear the three of them were alone in the house and always had been.
There were no demons to be afraid of. Just her mother.