“Poverty is an animal— a beast, really.” The baby’s parents were certain to mistake her warning for mere babbling, but she continued, “And if it ever gets its teeth in you, it will devour you, bones and all.”
“Come on up to bed,” the new Mrs. Franklin Dobbs whispered into the stairwell. Little Destiny had just nodded off in her crib.
It had been a delicious October Friday. Frank had called in sick to the tire shop, and Jessica was still on the closest thing to a maternity leave her boss was ever going to offer. After breakfast, the trio had gone yard saling; something they had done often since Jessica found out she was pregnant. There was never going to be a baby shower, or a wedding shower for that matter; not for two high school dropouts whose parents were all either dead or MIA.
They found yet another treasure at that junky place up in Sulphur Springs. Frank had bought a seventies model CB radio there a week before. “Breaker, breaker,” he had said into the corroded mic, trying to entertain his wife. She had smiled, and he had pleaded, “I’m pretty sure I can get it working again, babe. It’s only a buck.” Jessica had no doubt that he could get it working again. Her husband had aced AP Physics in the ninth grade, AP Calc in the tenth, and was aimed dead on at Electrical Engineering in college when his heartless and toothless family stepped in and changed his plans.
It was late-afternoon, and as they moved among the sawhorse tables, trying to determine where the yard sale ended and the yard trash began, Jessica spotted it. Sitting in a Budweiser box full of eight-track tapes was a baby monitor. It was one of those high-end Gracys. They had seen one just like it the day they went to buy formula with their WIC vouchers and as a joke—as a way of mocking their empty pockets—asked if they could fill out a gift registry form. “Everything’s digital nowadays,” the clerk had replied as he handed them a scan gun. And for the next few hours they had pushed Destiny around Target in a Ferrari-shaped stroller while they zapped every wonderful thing they knew they would never have.
Despite the box’s curled edges, it looked brand new. Jessica wiped the dust off the homemade price tag: $25. She gave Frank a disappointed frown. There was no one in the yard to haggle, and they were about to leave when a gnarled old man descended the rickety porch steps. The look of him made Jessica’s mouth go suddenly dry and coppery. “Just take it,” he said flashing his gums at the baby. “Do you more good than me.”
They sped toward home with the spoils of the day piled next to Destiny’s car seat. “You know,” Frank said. “With a big kite and a skateboard we could actually go yard sailing.” Jessica didn’t think it was funny. In fact, she hardly ever got his jokes. But she always laughed, and would do anything to get him to laugh too. Her husband’s laugh was a choir of angels.
“Never git married when you’re poor,” Gramma Dobbs had said on the day Frank brought Jessica around to meet the closest thing he had to a parent. Gramma was halfway through her daily tea tumbler of gin and had three cigarettes going at once, each burning away in a different room. “Neither one of you has a pot to piss in ner a window to throw it outa’. Mark my words… When the wolf comes knockin’ at the front door, love’ll go sneakin’ out the back.”
They were poor. They would always be poor. But while this same fate had seen fit to beat down nearly everyone else in their lives, it had somehow only deepened the well of their courage. So they had gotten married anyway. There were no gifts, or cards, or even words of wisdom; there was just the two of them standing utterly alone before the JP. The beautiful vows Jessica had written proved impossible to remember, so they recited them to each other in their simplest form, “Forever, no matter what,” as the backhanded advice of a sour old woman seemed to echo around the room.
She admired her little ring for the thousandth time as she whispered a little louder, “You comin’ up or not? Them cabinet doors can wait ‘til tomorrow.”
“Just a minute, babe,” Frank replied. “Almost done.”
He had come to the painful realization that moving into an abandoned house was not like it was in the movies. You did not pull away canvas dust covers to reveal tasteful antique furniture. And the process was not condensed down to a one-minute montage set to music by Katrina and The Waves. There had been vandalism and graffiti, and every room smelled like wet dog.
Yes, the cabinet doors could wait until tomorrow. But even tomorrow they wouldn’t paint themselves. Frank was a married man now; married and living in a house where the bathroom floor had rotted so completely that the fetid earth underneath was clearly visible through a hole where the toilet had been, and a heavy piece of plywood was all that kept the raccoons out. There was work to be done, and Frank was a married man now.
Yet Frank had been in the grip of the Whitaker house since long before the wedding, since even before ‘Frank-n-Jessie’ started appearing in red spray paint on nearby overpasses and water towers. In fact, he took his first hard look at the place when he was just a kid on the school bus. It had a second story, a porch, and even a chimney. To ten-year-old Frank Dobbs, the Whitaker house was ‘The White Mansion on The Hill.’
Old Georgie and Maxine lived in the house back then. They ran a Grade C dairy operation and kept the whole farm neat as a pin. But they died sometime in the nineties and left it all to their deadbeat puke of a son—a man Frank had taken to calling ‘Whitaker The Younger.’
Jason Whitaker’s double-wide was buried somewhere in the mountain of crap on the other side of the dirt road. Back in the summer, when Jessie was really starting to show, Frank had parked the pickup in the ditch and waded through a field of jimson weed to ask him about renting the farmhouse. Whitaker The Younger said he could use a supplement to his Social Security check and considered Frank’s offer for all of ten seconds. “We’ll call it rent-to-own,” he said and wiped a gobbet of barbecue sauce onto his NASCAR shirt before holding his hand out for Frank to shake.
“Pay me steady for ten years, and I’ll give ya the deed.”
Frank was overjoyed, but he knew better than to think that he would ever actually own the house. By the end of the decade, this guy would be a ward of the state, or would have succumbed to any one of a number of evils that plague his ilk—likely the same addiction that burned down Frank’s own father if the state of Young Whitaker’s teeth was any indication. Either way, the house would go into probate, and a greasy handshake would mean precisely diddly squirt.
But none of that mattered. There was a baby girl now. And she would live in the house of her father’s dreams… at least for a while. Frank lidded the paint, killed the lights, and climbed the steps. The cabinet doors would wait until tomorrow.
They settled into bed, too tired for anything but sleep. It had been a long day. It had been a day of laughter; of sapphire skies and gently rotting leaves, and of nostalgia so beautiful and painful as to defy all understanding or description. But Frank needed to understand it. As he lay there, staring through heavy eyelids at the way the moon lit their chipped plaster wall, he found the word he was looking for: exalted. That was it. That was how he felt. His little family was still among the lowliest of the peasants of Cedar Hill, Arkansas; but, by sticking it out and staying together, by proving everybody wrong, they had somehow transcended.
He was about to nudge Jessie and share his idea with her, but she was already out; the cadence of her breathing was deep and slow. Besides, these were nothing more than weird half-dream thoughts, and he knew she must be feeling them too. Words just weren’t her thing. Time for sleep. Then the howling started, and Frank’s highly evolved emotion dissolved at once into primal terror.
They both sat up. The warmth of the bed vanished as a flock of geese went waltzing over their graves.“What was that?” Jessica asked. She was already whimpering.
“I…” But the howling came again and cut Frank’s words from the air.
It was a cry of unimaginable agony, but there was a sick giggle of delight hidden underneath. It’s hell, Frank thought. My God, that’s what hell must sound like! But the worst thing of all—the thing that squeezed the adrenal glands with brute force—was that the howling was coming from the baby monitor.
Frank could hear his wife bawling their daughter’s name as if from across a chasm. Were there words in the howling? Like foul curses in an ancient tongue? Frank was sure of it.
The voices in his own head seemed to jostle for control of the wheel, and for a moment he stood dumbfounded, his feet glued to the floor. ‘Survival Frank’ spoke from deep within the alligator portion of his brain. It coddled him with reason: “Just get out of the house, Frank,” it said. “Get as far away from the danger as you can. Quickly, Frank. It’s ok to leave them to their fate.”
He looked at Jessica. She stood trembling by the window, staring at the monitor. It sat on her nightstand howling away. Her hands covered her ears, her mouth an absurd parody of that Edvard Munch painting.
‘Frank The Father’ suddenly seized the wheel and was prepared—even eager—to drive the bus over the cliff. His feet broke loose into a dead run. He flung open the door to Destiny’s room and switched on the light.
The howling stopped.
He looked around the room. Each pound of his heart delivered a stabbing flash of white blindness to his eyes. He looked around the room, poised to pounce on someone— something. Again, he looked around the room. But there was no demon…
Destiny lay asleep in her crib, sporting her awesome new onesie. It was stained, but it had only cost a quarter, and the front read, ‘My Heart Belongs to Merle Haggard!’ Jessica had joked that she would’ve paid ten bucks for it.
Frank’s heartbeat still pounded in his ears, but the baby’s breathing was steady. Her feet and hands gave the occasional wiggle. She was dreaming the alien dreams that are the secrets of infants; the dreams in which all things and all languages are known; the dreams we all forget as time drags us further and further from the bliss of amniotic soup. In tonight’s secret dream, the gummy old yard sale man looked at Destiny and threw down his gauntlet.
Frank and Jessica Dobbs winced and yawned as the first rays of morning sun pierced the pickup’s cracked windshield. They had scooped up the baby and darted out of the house without discussion. But once in the truck, it had come to them that there was nowhere to go. So the truck is where they had stayed. “There’s…a…family-in-a-truck-in-the-yard-of-the-house-in-the-hole-in-the-bottom of the sea,” Frank sang as the baby wailed. Jessica did not attempt to laugh.
Around midnight, Frank had gone back into the house to fetch blankets and a bottle of formula, trying all the while to remember how to pray. Now Destiny was asleep again in mother’s arms after a nearly eternal fit of colic.
“I’m cold,” Jessica said snuggling closer. “Can we waste just a little more gas?”
Frank turned the key, and as the old Dodge roared to life, the howling flooded the cab. Jessica, too terrified to scream, sucked air with deep hitching gasps. She reached for the door handle, but Frank held her wrist. “Wait!” he said. He leaned forward and fiddled with the knob marked ‘SQUELCH’ on his prized vintage CB radio. The howling faded and returned as he rotated the knob. The grin spreading across Frank’s face made his wife pull away, prepared to bolt. “Just listen!” he said.
There were voices again; strange and distant, yet benign in the ochre light of dawn. And as Frank adjusted the dial, coherent words seemed to form out of the din:
‘…n’ ain’t no smokies down err’ on I-five-forty s’mornin’ so ya better…’
The voice, more colloquial than what had sounded to Frank like druidic grunts in the watches of the night, was swallowed as the hiss and whine swelled into the foreground. Then someone else seemed to sing along with a far away AM radio:
‘…eighteen wheeeeeels and a dozen ro…’
Frank slapped his forehead laughing. “Wait here,” he said. He got out of the truck and ran toward the house. Jessica leapt out on the passenger side. “Frank!” she yelled. But the screen door had already slammed behind him. She backed a few paces deeper into the growing light of the shaggy autumn yard. The rusty Dodge kept on screaming and hissing and singing Country and Western songs at her.
As she waited, she kept an eye on both truck and house, and nervously patted a baby who was fast asleep and in no need of comforting. The front door opened again. Frank reappeared and sprinted to the truck. He yanked the key to silence the Dodge’s devil and then sprinted to Jessica, still laughing. “We are a couple of Grade A suckers!” he said, puffing racehorse bursts of steam into the chilly air. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it last night… The monitor… It has no adjacent channel rejection! I bet none of them do! It’s demodulating the second harmonics that are around fifty-four megahertz!”
Jessica slapped her own forehead. “That’s just what I was thinkin’. It’s so obvious.” The sarcastic look she threw him needed no translation.
“Sorry, babe,” he said, regaining his breath. “It’s the CBs out on the highway… The baby monitor is just picking up trucker talk. There was nothing evil in Destiny’s room last night.”
The day was getting on, and Frank had gone to the hardware store to pick up a new paintbrush. Destiny cooed in her battery powered swing while mommy cleared away the lunchtime dishes. Frank and Jessica had sat mesmerized as they watched their child transform into a tomato soup and cracker volcano. Now Jessica soaked a towel in the sink, preparing to tackle the collateral damage.
By the time she finished her chores the baby was quiet. Asleep at last. She eased her out of the swing and tiptoed her up the stairs. She laid her in the crib, went into the other bedroom, and plugged in the baby monitor. She was not afraid of it. If Frank Dobbs said something was safe, it was safe. You did not question it.
She went to the back window to have a smoke. She knew Frank didn’t approve, but he never complained. She looked out. A blanket of sullen clouds had spread nearly to the horizon. The color pallet of the maple leaves had changed from jack-o’-lantern fire this morning to a dismal gunmetal this afternoon. Earlier, the humidity had been thick as pond water, but now the air was bone dry. A late-summer jar fly stirred in the grass below. It’ll rain, Jessica thought. Has too.
For a while, nothing unusual came out of the little speaker; no demons, no truckers… just sleeping baby noises. But then a man began to speak, and his words were easy to understand. There was no squalling accompaniment.
‘Gloria, you copy?’ he said.
Was that Frank’s voice? Jessica flicked her butt into the back yard and moved across the room to the front window. The Dodge was still in its spot. Did he never even leave?
‘Loud and clear honey,’ a darkly familiar voice replied.
Jessica’s knees buckled. Gloria Assencio was a cheerleader back in high school with penchant for slumming. She had been Frank’s part-time lover throughout the tenth and eleventh grades. The blood drained from Jessica’s face as she listened to the conversation unfold.
‘We still on for tonight? Over.’ Frank asked.
‘That’s a big ten-four.’
‘You all packed up and ready to move in?’
‘Hell yah! But what about the little wifey? Over.’
Frank paused and then keyed the CB’s mic so that Gloria Assencio could hear his coy chuckle.
‘What? What are you up to?’ Gloria Assencio prodded.
‘I poisoned her soup today.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Did she eat it? I mean, do you think she noticed? Over.’
‘No way. She’s dumb as a sack of hair. You know that. Besides, if she’s not dead in a little while, I’ll just bash the bitch’s head in with a hammer. I’ve already got a hole dug in the woods behind the house.’
‘That’s my big strong man!’
‘Be by your radio at nineteen hundred. This shouldn’t take more than an hour.’
‘Sweet! Love you,’ said Gloria Assencio.
‘Love you, too. Over and out.’ said Frank Dobbs.
Jessica made an easy transition from numbing depression to paralyzing fear. She could not think on her feet; nature had not equipped her with that particular talent. She knew that she should at least try to take the baby and escape; to run to the highway, to flag down a car and get to a hospital before the poison set in. These thoughts were right on the surface. But she could not move. The shock of such ruthless betrayal had filled her muscles with broken glass, and she could not move.
‘Hello, Mrs. Dobbs,’ said the monitor. It was a thick, putrid sound. The sudden image of a face came to her: an old man’s suntan, years of outdoor labor, summer layered upon summer, skin like elephant hide… a maw filled with bloody gums and a few tobacco-stained stumps… “Do you more good than me,” he had said yesterday… Was he looking at Destiny when he said it…?
‘He’s going to kill you, you know… you and your baby,’ the gravelly old voice said. ‘You must kill him first if you want to live. You know that don’t you?’ The voice was sovereign. Its will could not be denied.
The pickup door slammed out in the yard and Jessica flew into action. She raced down to the kitchen and selected the biggest carving knife from the utensil drawer. She climbed the stairs again and went into Destiny’s room. She picked up her daughter and held her tightly.
“Shhhhhh, shh, shh, shh,” she said through her tears. She bounced the baby and waited. But the baby, who was turning out to be a lousy innocent bystander, was still asleep.
The front door exploded inward. “Jessie!” Frank bellowed. He took a step forward, and his sneakers crunched the poor old remains of the Whitaker’s beveled door glass. “Jessie! I’m coming to get him! I’m coming to get the scum!”
Jessica felt as if she were caught in the undertow of madness, yet one rational question bobbed on the surface: Who is Frank talking about? Up the stairs Frank came stomping. “You just couldn’t be faithful could you?” he spat in the echoing stairwell. “Your kind never is! I’m gonna thin the herd today, Jessie! First him, then you.” He was dragging something heavy, something metal.
And I’m going to die today, Jessica thought and let her bladder go. But when Frank got to the top, he turned right and went into their bedroom. Now his back was to her. He took a few more steps, and she started down the stairs. She tried to be silent, but in this house, there was only one stair tread that did not squeak.
“JESSICAAA!!” Frank screamed, and a chorus of fell laughter blasted from the monitor as if it were wired to a tower of speakers. He spun around to chase her, but only plodded along at zombie speed.
She moved down the hall to the ruined bathroom on legs of rubber. She wedged the toe of her shoe under the sheet of plywood and kicked it aside, revealing the hole underneath. “Everything’s gonna be alright, sweetie. Momma’s gonna take care of everything,” she whispered as she lowered the baby down onto the stinking dirt. “Moses in a basket… Moses in a basket,” she repeated as she covered the hole. “Please, Jesus, don’t let there really be a raccoon down there.”
“Where is he, Jessie?” Frank called when he arrived at the bottom landing. “He’s gotta go first. Those are the rules.”
Jessica walked calmly up the hall. She gripped the knife just the way her father had taught her.
They simultaneously entered opposite sides of the kitchen. At that moment, the sun sank below the low line of clouds and filled the room with the blood orange light of hell’s furnace. A cacophony of devils roared from the baby monitor.
“Where is he?” Frank asked. His eye’s were like swollen plums. In one hand he held the big tire iron that normally rattled around the bed of his truck.
“Where is who?” Jessica replied coldly. The devils laughed and cursed and sang and howled.
“Where is who…” Frank said tapping his chin. “Well let’s see… How do I put this? Apparently the monitor works both ways, BABE! No sooner do I get into the goddamn truck than the CB starts broadcasting a couple of people getting it on. So, I listen. And what do you know? Turns out its my dear wife and some other man going at it in my daughter’s room!” Frank paused, and seemed to savor his wife’s look of dismay.
“I heard all of it, Jessie. Right down to the bit where you and Mr. Right began to plot my demise. But here’s the best part… I know I got in here before he had time to leave. So, I’ll ask you one more time… Where is this swinging dick?”
Jessica’s lips twisted in disgust. “You’re crazy,” she hissed.
“Fine,” Frank said taking a step forward. “You first then.”
Jessica raised the knife and rushed at him. In the room above, the paint began to peel.
The raccoon awoke and breathed the cool rank air of the crawl space. Its eyes glowed like phosphor as it approached the baby human.
“I have summoned you for a purpose,” said the manling in the raccoon’s tongue. “Along the flat stones behind you runs a thick yellow vine. You will chew through it. Quickly. The vine will bite you. But you mustn’t stop. Go now.” The raccoon growled and shuffled away to do her bidding.
Frank leaned to the right, and the knife plunged into the door jam behind him. It missed his eye by less than an inch. A portion of his ear still clung to its blade. As Jessica tried to free her weapon, he swung around and caught her mid-back with the tire iron. She crumpled to the floor and uttered a breathless scream. Another wave of raucous yowling shook the kitchen ceiling. Frank went to the sink. His hand cupped the remains of his mangled ear. A rivulet of blood ran down his arm and dripped onto the battered linoleum.
The pain in Jessica’s back blazed and held her down like a heavy weight. She managed to pull herself up onto her elbows, and though her spine was surely damaged, it was not broken. She could move her legs just enough to crawl toward Frank, knife in hand. The crowd of demons now cheering through the monitor was so large that it sounded like a swarm of locusts. ‘Stick the pig! Stick the pig!’ some of them chanted.
With the last of her strength she thrust the knife at the back of Frank’s leg, opening a deep gash in the meat of his calf. Frank cried out and pivoted. Jessica lost her grip on the knife, and it clattered out of reach. He slipped on the bloody floor and tumbled onto her, pinning her arms beneath his knees. He raised the tire iron above his head.
‘Go for the kill! Go for the kill!’