Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson

  “Hello?” I called, setting down my suitcase. “Where is everyone?”

  The only answer was the gentle stirring of a paper on the coffee table, and I went over and picked it up.

  SUNDAY, it said. Barry and/or dog ate all directions. Have taken all children incl. Barry to hamburger stand for dinner, movies. Barry fond of movies, went yesterday too, also fr.fr. potatoes. Don’t wait up for us. Casserole on kitchen table, cats not fed. Milkman left two dozen eggs. Jannie says six jellybeans is not plenty. Leave front door unlocked. Jar in refrigerator labeled Mayonnaise was mayonnaise.

  • • •

  Nothing is stable in this world. As soon as Barry was old enough to be regarded as a recognizable human being, with ideas and opinions, it became necessary for the other children to change him around. Since he was now too big to fit into a doll carriage, Jannie amused herself by dressing him in costume jewelry and ribbons. Sally sat on the floor next to the playpen and sang to him because, she said, it made him dance. Barry was clearly too formal a name, and we took to calling him B. B was too short, however, and he became Mr. B, then Mr. Beetle, and finally Mr. Beekman. He stayed Mr. Beekman until he was almost ready for nursery school, and then came around full circle, moving back to Mr. B, then B, and, at last, to Barry again. At one point he developed a disconcerting habit of answering no matter who was being called. Thus, dancing, and decked in ribbons, Beekman walked instead of creeping, and learned to drink from a cup.

  • • •

  With the coming of our first spring in our new house it was overnight astonishingly clear that our trees and grass and bushes and flowers were real. They all showed a first pale green just like all the other trees and grass and bushes and flowers up and down the street, and I went out and took movies so we could all sit in the dark living room and see that our trees had surely turned green at the tips of the branches. The snow turned into mud, particularly in our driveway. My husband added up the winter’s fuel bills and said it would be cheaper to take the barn apart and burn it stick by stick, then start on the furniture. I got up one bright Sunday morning and saw the sun and the blue sky and could not bear the thought of just driving casually down the street to the news shop to get the Sunday papers. I told the children that because it was such a particularly springlike morning I was going to get the papers by driving out the back road and out along the river road and then up the other way to the news shop, and home, and they could come with me if they liked. They got into the car, solemnly discussing the possibilities of the weather’s getting enough into Mommy’s head to provoke a popsicle all around. I did not expect to get out of the car, since Laurie could run into the news shop and get the papers, so I was wearing an old coat, warm and comfortable in spite of the way it looked, high, sheepskin-lined leather boots, and a red and white scarf tied over my hair, which I had combed only haphazardly, since it has always been very awkward for me to comb my hair properly until I have had my morning coffee. My husband was still asleep, and I left the coffee making in the electric coffeepot, and bacon in the pan ready to fry when I got back.

  The sun was rich and the air was fresh, and I drove down the river road contentedly, deeply appreciative of the warmth of the sunlight after an all-night rain, my car splashing richly through the deep puddles. The road was extremely muddy and quite slippery, and I was glad that I had not, after all, had the snow tires taken off when it began to look like spring. I was thinking with some complacency, as a matter of fact, of how my husband had told me to get the snow tires taken off and I had forgotten. On the front seat beside me Mr. Beekman stood straight and alert in his car-chair, scanning the road ahead for possible cookies; now and then he turned to me and inquired, “Daddy?” In the back seat the three other children held converse among themselves, with raised voices and various pushings. Jannie, on the assumption that it was a matter of grave universal interest, gave us the names of the cowboys in her Red Rider gang at school; Laurie kept one hand caressingly on the barrel of the BB gun his grandfather had sent him over my urgent disapproval; he rattled BB’s in his pocket and commented unceasingly upon the availability of passing objects as targets; Sally stood on her head on the back seat, singing. “Daddy?” Mr. Beekman asked insistently.

  “Sunshine,” I said, and sighed with satisfaction.

  “Won’t get many crows today,” Laurie opined drearily. He has never yet, to my knowledge or his, shot a crow with his BB gun. “Too wet underfoot.”

  “If I was a space cadet,” Jannie said, “you know what I’d do? I’d take an asteroid on, like, Friday night, and then when it started to rain on Saturday again—”

  “Thursday, you’d have to,” Laurie said. “Never do it on time on Friday, light years and all.”

  “Cookie?” Mr. Beekman suggested.

  I breathed deeply and happily, blew the car horn twice as I came to the bad right turn, shifted into second, pulled the wheel around, and turned the corner into the path of a car coming, fast, the other way.

  I was annoyed, because I was startled, and I put my foot down on the brake and simultaneously and instinctively shoved my right elbow into Mr. Beekman’s stomach to keep him from pitching forward from his car-chair. “Woomph,” said Mr. Beekman, and I pressed harder on the brake because my car was not stopping or even slowing down. I was suddenly acutely aware of the flimsy wooden bridge which was all that separated my car from the drop to the river on the right; I said “Floor” loudly, and hoped the children would understand; I tried to pull over to the left onto a broad lawn on that side of the road, and my car still would neither stop nor turn. I saw briefly that the driver of the other car was leaning far back in his seat, as though he, too, had his feet pressed down flat on the floor, and I braced myself against the back of the seat and put one foot on top of the other on the brake pedal, as though some kind of force might prevail upon the car to stop.

  It was perfectly clear that the two cars were going to hit, skidding into each other, and I told myself firmly, there is plenty of time to stop, plenty of time. From a great distance I could hear the children’s voices raised in what seemed to be enthusiastic cheering. The only question in my mind was perhaps a little academic: I was wondering how hard we were going to come together, and I was impatient at the ponderous independent movement of my car; if it was going to go off and smack into another car I wanted to get it over with. During the interminable moment between my putting my foot on the brake and the crash, I even had time to comprehend that none of us would be hurt, and then the long familiar nose of my car, intent upon destruction, swung itself with a shattering impact into the other car. Fantastic, I thought, sitting there for the first silent second, and that coffee cooking away at home.

  “Cookie?” said Mr. Beekman into the silence.

  “You all right?” I took my elbow out of Mr. Beekman’s stomach. “Children, are you all right?”

  “Sure,” said Laurie. “Say, that was a good one.” He sounded pleased.

  “I got on the floor,” Sally said, “and I found a penny.”

  “We all got on the floor, except Laurie peeked,” Jannie said.

  “Can I keep it?” Sally asked. “The penny?”

  “Boy,” Laurie said with relish, “was Mom ever scared. You hurt or something?” he asked me.

  “I’m not hurt,” I said. “I was not scared.” I felt very calm, sitting there comfortably, and then I realized that we were all talking with excited speed, that the echoes of the crash were still sounding along the country road, and that the doors of the other car were slamming open; the other driver stumbled out, his legs shaking and his face white, and he yelled at me, “What you think you’re doing?”

  Deliberately I unclenched my left hand from the wheel and opened the door and climbed out; it was not until this moment that it had occurred to me that we were extraordinarily lucky that I, at least, had been going slowly, and it was at that moment only the thought of my innocent little child
ren in the car which prevented me from speaking my mind fully. “What,” I said, snarling, “do you think you are doing? Coming around a turn like that at that speed on a slippery road and we could all have been killed?” My voice began to quaver suddenly, and I stopped and counted ten. “At that speed,” I said, through my teeth.

  “You insured?” he asked.

  “Certainly I’m insured. Coming around a curve like—”

  “Mom,” Laurie said from the back window, “can we get out?”

  “No,” I said, not turning. “Now listen here,” I began to the other driver, and then the woman who was standing by his car, who had gotten out when he had and was standing there rubbing her forehead, took a step forward and said, “Nearly killed me.” “Now listen here,” I said again, and Laurie leaned out the back window and said, “Mom, can we get out? You all right?”

  “The steering wheel hit me in the stomach,” I said, realizing then why I was standing as though I had just been kicked by a horse. I straightened up with an effort and said, “Now listen here—”

  “I wonder what Daddy is going to say,” Jannie remarked brightly.

  “Ooh,” I said, and doubled up again.

  “You’re hurt?” the other woman said, and laughed shortly. “What about me?” She rubbed her forehead and brought her hand down and looked at it hopefully for blood. “You insured?” she asked.

  “Oh, shut up,” I said.

  “My little boy got hurt,” she said. “He’s still in the car, hurt too bad to move.”

  “What?” Hastily, I made my way past her, thinking that she must surely be stunned or shocked, and got over to their car, where the man was leaning in through the front door, arguing. It was so slippery that I had to hold on to the fenders of the cars to keep on my feet.

  “Come on out,” the man was saying. “No one’s going to hurt you.” Finally he reached in and pulled out a small boy about six years old. “You all right?” he asked the boy.

  “Sure,” the little boy said.

  “He is not all right,” the woman said, pushing past me to grab the little boy. “He is not all right,” she insisted, her voice rising, “he’s covered with blood.”

  “Good lord,” I said helplessly.

  “Where you hurt?” The woman began to run her hands frantically along the little boy, feeling the outside of his snowsuit. “You hurt in the head, like me?”

  “No,” the little boy said, “I feel fine.” He smiled at me, and I smiled back nervously.

  “There’s blood on his hand,” the woman announced loudly. “Look, blood all over his hand.” She held up his hand and the man and I leaned forward and saw a small scratch and a little blood. The man wiped the blood off with his handkerchief and looked deeply at the scratch. “You hadn’t ought to do that,” the woman told him. “Leave it for them to see.”

  “I did it before, anyway,” the little boy said. “I did it over to Grandma’s house, on the door.”

  “It’s awful,” the woman said hastily. She put her hand to her head. “I feel faint,” she said.

  “I should think so,” I told her sweetly, “traveling at that rate of speed. We’re supposed to call the state troopers,” I said to the man. “We can’t move either of these cars, and no one can get past us along this road, and anyway an accident has got to be reported. Will you call them,” I said, “or shall I?”

  He looked at his wife for a minute, and then said, “I’ll do it.”

  I watched with irritation as he looked again at his wife, and then moved off toward the nearest house. “Mom,” Laurie called, “can we get out now?”

  “Just be patient,” I said. “Sing or something.”

  Jannie struck up halfheartedly with “The Old Chisholm Trail,” and the woman said, “Are you insured?”

  I opened my mouth and then shut it again, reminding myself of the explicit instructions on my insurance papers, instructions about not discussing an accident with any but properly constituted authorities. I turned instead to look at the damage to my car. “Junior’s hurt bad,” the woman said as I walked away. The road was covered with bright fragments of chromium grillwork and broken glass, my fenders were crumpled unrecognizably, the front license plate leaned drunkenly sideways, bent almost double. “Oh, brother,” I said, thinking of my husband peacefully asleep at home. The other car gave a momentary impression of deep embarrassment, as though it were hoping to tiptoe away when no one was looking; it leaned backward, somehow, and it was not until I looked at it clearly now that I saw that what I had assumed from a brief glance earlier was wholesale destruction was actually the car’s natural condition; the lopsided body and buckled doors were rusty, the back window had been broken long before this morning, and there were grounds for deep suspicion in the clothesline which held one door shut. “Got to keep an eye on you,” the woman said suddenly, from just in back of me, “see you don’t tamper with the evidence.”

  “I was thinking of lifting my car off the road and hiding it under a bush,” I said, regarding Junior, who was climbing over the front of my car, kicking off loose pieces of grillwork.

  “Wouldn’t put it past you,” the woman said, “ramming us like that. You better start looking for trouble, lady, because Junior’s hurt bad and I hit my head on the windshield and I think I got a concussion.” She rubbed her head vigorously.

  “Uh-huh,” I said, and made my way back to my own car and got into it and sat down.

  “Mom,” Jannie said, “when we going home?”

  “In a few minutes,” I said. “We have to wait until the police get here. The man’s gone in to call them.”

  “Boy,” Laurie said longingly, “I could sure get a good shot at that kid from here.”

  I sighed, and nodded. I saw the man coming back and I rolled down the window and called to him, “Did you get the troopers?” He did not answer me, but addressed his wife. “I got ahold of Carmen,” he said, and she said, “Okay.” Then the man turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, lady,” and looked again at his wife.

  “Sergeant Smith of Homicide,” Laurie said. “Gotta sew this case up good, Inspector.”

  “Crime,” Jannie pointed out conclusively, “does not pay.”

  “Right as always, Watson,” Laurie said. “Jeeps, looka the hot rod.”

  I blinked; this was surely not the state police? Then the man, who was still standing near my car with his wife, said, “Carmen,” and I was reassured. Carmen’s car was perhaps slightly older than the one which had hit me, but it seemed resolutely to be hiding its age; Carmen’s car was painted in glorious reds and whites, striped and gaudy; it looked like a chorus girl dressed as an automobile. “In my day,” I said irrepressibly, “they used to write things on them, like ‘Going my way?’ and ‘This way out’ and—”

  “What?” Laurie said. “Write on cars?”

  The driver of this amateur circus wagon, who was, presumably, Carmen, got himself out of it somehow, and came to stand next to the woman and man on the road. He glanced briefly at me, and then at my car, and reached out to touch the hood tenderly. “Sure did a job on this,” he said. “Sure did,” said the other man.

  Carmen glanced thoughtfully at the other car, at the woman, who immediately rubbed her forehead, and then at Junior bouncing on what was left of my front bumper. “Anybody hurt?” he asked.

  “Junior’s all cut up,” the woman said.

  “That so?” Carmen turned toward Junior. “Where you hurt, kid?” he asked, and silently the little boy held up his hand for inspection. “Yeah,” said Carmen. He shook his head. “Sure did a job on that car,” he said.

  “I know him,” Laurie said suddenly. “Mom, I—”

  “Shh,” I said.

  “But Rob and me’ve seen him hundreds of times, and—”

  “Here are the troopers at last,” I said thankfully. “Now we can get home soon.” The tro
opers’ car was black and smooth and very official; its license read “State Police” and the men inside wore the wide hats and faintly gallant uniforms which I had seen before and admired secretly; I was a little shocked to see how very state-trooperish they seemed, but when they stopped their car and got out and came striding toward us, I opened the door of my car with a feeling which Laurie, in a whisper, expressed to perfection.

  “Jeepers,” Laurie said.

  “You suppose they ever caught a cattle rustler?” Jannie wanted to know.

  “Daddy!” Mr. Beekman said with satisfaction.

  The two troopers, who looked almost exactly alike and acted with almost identical motions, glanced at the other driver. “You the man called?” one of them asked, and the other driver nodded. Then both the troopers moved to look at the two cars and the debris in the road. One of them took out a notebook and pencil, and the other asked the questions; they glanced briefly at me, standing next to my car. By this time, anxious to co-operate fully with the law, I was holding in my hand my driver’s license, my car registration, my insurance card, my gas credit card, and the receipt for a registered letter to a coin dealer which I had sent off several days before for my husband. “Anyone hurt?” the trooper asked.

  “My little boy,” the other driver said swiftly, “he cut himself bad. My wife got a bad crack on her forehead, maybe a concussion. No one in the other car got even scratched.”

  “Medical attention?”

  “My cousin here, he’s waiting to get them to a doctor. They wanted to stay, make sure everything was legal, first.”

  “That’s right,” said the woman. “Junior’s all covered with blood, but we didn’t want her getting away with anything.”

  “Hey,” I said. I turned to the nearer of the troopers. “Look,” I began, hesitating because I was concentrating on not raising my voice, on sounding as reasonable as possible, “listen,” I said.

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