Short story: Demonology 101 – Flirting with Steven King

This is an absolutely, 100% true story. This happened to me. It was winter, 1975. I was living in the student dorms in downtown Philadelphia as a freshman at the University of the Arts (still the Philadelphia College of Art back then). It was winter break so my room-mate, Dierdre, a tall, bleached-blonde, Ukrainian-Amazon with David Bowie hair and make-up and glam-rocker boyfriends (1975 remember?), was away in New York. I was staying back to work on a few paintings I still needed to finish to complete the semester’s requirements. I had taken too much time off skydiving rather than do my course-work. Now that it was too cold to jump, I had to catch up on my assignments. The current work was an aerial landscape. Skydiving had made a big impression on my artwork, which was not terribly appreciated by my impassioned impressionist-loving lecturers. I had little interest in the pretty, colorful works of Cezanne or Matisse, but rather preferred the Ashcan school – gritty realistic, urban slum scenes. I also loved the Regionalism of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, those Americana admirers of the everyday life of ordinary people in the 1930s. Aerial views of the rolling patchwork fields over which I leaped from perfectly good airplanes and the sculpted fluidity of Thomas Hart Benton seemed a perfect match to me. Needless to say, I was not popular in art school!

But what happened on this wintry night in Philadelphia was about to change all that.

It was a cold night, but I had the windows open a crack to compensate for the usual over-heating. Inside the toasty room, I was enjoying the hissing sound of the radiators just below the windows of this turn-of-the century gothic building. The long narrow room I shared with Dierdre was on the 8th floor of what had been an asylum for the insane in its previous incarnate. Room 8E, in the middle of the floor and in the middle of the 16 story building, was directly in front of the elevator. We still needed an elevator operator, who, after midnight, when all us kiddies should be tucked into our warm beds, doubled as the night watchman.

As I already said, I was happily working on a painting of an aerial landscape, whistling along with the radiators. I was sitting cross-legged in shorts and singlet on the floor. The canvas was propped up against the radiator between the two beds. I glanced up to the clock on top of the radiator. Nine twenty.

My painting was taking shape nicely so I was quite absorbed in working for some time. I got up to pour myself another hot tea. Then as I settled back to my spot on the floor to resume my work, I glanced again at the clock – nine twenty. Hunh?? That’s weird. I reached for the clock. It was dead. Strange. I guess I forgot to wind it. No biggie. I picked up my brush and started back on the rolling patchwork of recently plowed Pennsylvanian fields.

After what seemed like another hour or so, I got up to stretch my legs and view my work. As I stood, a gust of cold wind hit me hard. I glanced again at the window, walked over and gazed out at the street below. It was a still night. So where’d that cold come from?

I had little knowledge or thoughts of spiritualism back then, despite my near death experience in a skydiving accident three years earlier. In fact, I had little belief in anything beyond my own hedonism. As a young adult, I had a well-formed sense of self that stood up well to those that criticized my absolute faith in my own instincts. To others, it looked like a complete lack of responsibility. To me it was a belief in life, a need to take each and every experience by the horns and run with it. After all, this was the mid seventies. Despite my family insisting I did not need college (“your brothers never went to college so I’ll be damned if I’d pay for you to go,” was what my father had said), I was there anyway, paying my own way without any assistance from anyone.

Right now, my instincts were telling me that something was not right. That cold wind left a chill and the goose-bumps had not yet disappeared. I glanced again at the clock, which still read nine twenty. I walked over to Deirdre’s bed to see her electric clock. It too read nine-twenty!! Ok, now I know something weird is going on. Get outta here!

I grabbed some clothes and buzzed for the elevator. Antonio should be up by the time I pulled myself together, found my coat and stuck a few dollars in my pocket. As I locked the door, I heard the elevator open right behind me.

“Whea you off to this time a night?” Antonio asked in his thick Southern accent.

“What time is it?” I asked, adding “all my clocks stopped at nine twenty”.

“That’s odd. It’s after midnight”

“Oh ya? Hmmm, I guess I’ll go to the Alehouse. My room feels weird. Somethin’s tellin me to get out.”

“You want me to check anything?”

“Nah. I’ve been workin too hard’s all. I think I’ll see who’s hangin out.”

The Alehouse was half a block away and the comforting noise beckoned me, as did the thought of a cool ale and the friends I would most certainly find there. Sure enough, in the corner table were Geoff, that cute photography major I’d had my eye on, and a bunch of his friends. They scrunched over and made room for me next to him on the bench.

“So where’ve you been all night?” that cute Geoff asked.

“In my room painting, but the strangest thing happened.”

I proceeded to describe the eerie feelings I’d had and the clocks all stopping at nine twenty. People love spooky stories and these university juniors all had their own to add to the pot. It was here that I learned about the history of my dorm building and how many before me have had weird stories. So we drank, told stories and laughed till last call.

Back out in the cold night, that cute Geoff invited me back to his place. I regretfully declined, stating I just had to get my work done under threat of failing the class. He walked me back to the dorm and together we cuddled to stay warm and waited for Antonio to unlock the door and let me in.

“So how has your night been?” I asked the sweet, old guy who people say has been janitor, watchman and all round keeper of the building for more than 50 years.

“Uneventful, y’know. Ev’body’s away fo winter break, so not a soul’s been comin in n out sides yoself”.

“Good. That means all the creative muses have nobody to watch over but me! And I can sure use them!”

Antonio brought me up in the creaky old-fashioned elevator that always reminded me of Macy’s department store in New York. Way back when my mom would dress us all up and take me and my brother to the city on the number 7 train, we’d have the $2.95 lunch at Tad’s steak house and see the Christmas windows at Macy’s. Then we’d ride in that wonderful elevator with its hand cranked gates and red uniformed elevator operator who would announce each floor and all the treasures we’d find there.

Antonio must have been to Macy’s too, because he would immediately transform into that same formal demeanor as soon as he reached for that brass gate crank. He too would announce the floor and sometimes he’d even recite the names of the occupants there!

“Eighth floor, Berman, Kazin room E. Watch yo’ step!”

“Thank you, my dear sir” I replied. We both chuckled as I took the two steps forward to my door.

“You sleep well now” he said as he watched me put the key into the lock. But it wouldn’t turn. I tried and tried but the key just refused to turn.

“Antonio, I can’t get it to open”.

“Let me try. Hmmmm, yo right. It’s jammed o sumtin. Lemme try dis pass key. Hmmm, same. It jus won turn.”

“Cripes, ok. I’ll try climbing in through the transom. I’m tired and I just really want to get to my bed”, I sighed.

“You sho you can get up thea?”

“Yeah. I’m small enough and I can climb up on the doorknob”, I said as I took off my coat and handed it to Antonio. I steadied my right boot on the knob and hoisted myself up. With arms stretch up I grabbed the base of the transom and pulled myself into a standing position balanced firmly on the knob. That was easy enough. Now to make sure the transom wasn’t locked. I pushed it gently and with a faint squeak it eased forward into my room. But just as it cracked a bit, a sharp, cold wind hit me hard enough to blow my hair around.

“You musta lef yo window open in thea”, Antonio observed.

“Yeah, I guess I did, but I sure don’t remember doing so.”

I pushed the transom fully opened and scanned the room. It was a long narrow studio apartment. The small kitchenette was on my left, bathroom right. Then came the closets, hers on the left, mine the right. The room widened after the closets and was filled with two desks, then two beds on the left and right. The two tall, long, narrow windows filled the far wall above the radiator. Just as I left it. Lights on. Painting leaning against the radiator by my bed. Right window opened a crack.

Maybe I was just exhausted, drunk, or imagining things but as I gazed through the transom, the room seemed to bend. Ok, get this over with. I locked my elbows through the transom and lifted my right leg up to catch it through the frame. Good thing I’m the sporty type! I managed to catch my foot around the inside and shift myself around in the air, squeeze my other leg through and lower myself down to the inside doorknob. Still hanging with my elbows and face on the outside, I reached for my coat, which Antonio passed up to me. He had a big smile on his wrinkled old face as he shook his head in amazement at my aerial acrobatics, backed into the elevator and shut the gate. The elevator door closed with its usual whining and I heard the cables carry him slowly back down to the lobby.

Finally inside, I tossed my coat on to the floor, jumped down and rushed into the bathroom to relieve myself of all the beer.

While brushing my teeth, I heard a knock on the door. Who on earth could that be at this hour, I thought to myself? “Hold on” I shouted as I spat out the toothpaste and rinsed my mouth.

“Who is it?” I called out behind the closed door.

“I’m looking for Dierdre”, a man’s voice answered.

“She’s not here. She’s gone to New York.”

“Can you please open the door?”

“No, it’s jammed. And besides that, it’s far too late for visitors, especially those I don’t know.”

“I just want to ask you something.”

“I don’t care. It’s late. You shouldn’t be here. Go away.”

“Look, I’m sorry. Dierdre has my ring and I need it back. I’ve come a long way to get it. Could you please let me in? At least let me see who I’m talking to.”

“I can’t do that. The door’s jammed!”

I was getting mighty frustrated with this guy and his insistence. I tried ignoring him and his pleading, but he just wouldn’t go away. Finally I decided to ring for Antonio and ask him to get rid of this guy. But that meant climbing back up on the doorknob and reaching up over the transom to push the elevator button. Now how am I gonna do that? I thought. Ah, the broom! I grabbed the broom and placed it beside the door as I pushed myself up on the doorknob. But when I peered out through the swinging glass transom, my eyes caught something horrible. As I flashed into the hideous gaze of some monstrous yellow eyes, I realized I was being thrown through the air backwards.

What broke my fall, I do not really know. But some time later I awoke on the floor with one awfully sore shoulder. The first thing I noticed was that the chill in the room was gone. Whatever had been in front of my door was gone. Of this, I was certain. It took some effort to get off the floor. My shoulder was probably broken if not just dislocated. As I edged back to the door, I grabbed the broom and climbed up again on the doorknob. With my sore arm I held onto the door frame and with my right arm, I lifted the broom out and shoved it toward the elevator button. I got it and pushed. It took quite a few rings before I heard the elevator moving. Antonio was probably asleep, but up he came as the motor grinded into motion.

When the lift finally reached the 8th floor and the door squealed open, Antonio, with his characteristic good cheer, asked, “wha chu doin up so….” But he never finished his question. His eyes were fixed upon my door. He couldn’t speak. I looked down to see what caught his attention so radically, but from my position above, I could only see what looked like steel filings scraped off the door’s metal sheeting.

Ah you ok?

Yea, somebody was up here n I think my shoulder’s broken. Didn’t you let somebody in the door tonight?

Nobody’s been in or out beside yoself. Wha – wha was that did this?

Did what?

Look like animal claws done scratched clear through this hea metal doa!

You’re joking.

Nuhuh. Like some wil’ animal hea!

Maybe it was the shock, the injury, or just the beer but my head started to spin and I jumped down off the door to steady myself. Antonio grabbed for his pass key and opened my door. It opened??!

Lemme see dat shoulder o yos. Whea it hurt? Can you move it?

He felt it through my shirt and reported that it didn’t feel dislocated or broken. But he did suggest I go to the hospital to have it checked.

Noooooo. Tomorrow. I just need to sleep.

Antonio helped me to my bed and sat beside me gently stroking my hair as I closed my eyes and begged for sleep to take me someplace safe.

When I awoke a few hours later, the sun was streaming through the windows. I rolled over and was thrown back into the reality of the previous night by the pain in my right shoulder. I groaned from the pain and the memory. Why wasn’t that just a dream? I glanced at my clock which told me it was now almost noon. Hey, it’s working again.

With difficulty I dragged myself up and out of bed. I slowly, almost reluctantly, made my way over to the door in an effort to make sense of last night’s events. Did this really happen? Sure enough, the steel door was scarred and scratched by what most certainly looked like claws dragged through soft flesh. The door, at least, provided evidence that whatever it was, it did really happen.

The hospital report stated that I had suffered a hard impact and had severely bruised my right shoulder. It was not dislocated or broken, but I was required to rest it in a sling for at least a week. Damn! How will I finish my painting now?

When I got back to my room, some students were milling around staring at my door.

“Antonio told us you were visited by a demon last night. He says the beast never entered through the main door so it must have come up straight from hell!”

“Or maybe it was the spirit of some poor dead soul from back when this was a crazy house!”

“Well I’m glad you’re enjoying all this. I sure didn’t!”

Naturally everybody wanted to hear the story. Someone from the local press even came to take pictures and interview me.

Deirdre came back when I was out somewhere. She obviously heard the story. She and I were not very close so I was surprised to find her waiting for me. She asked me to describe the man and tell her everything he said. I described the feeling, the warnings, the signs, the entry into the building without using the doors, and the huge, glaring cat-like yellow eyes. I half expected her to ask me if I’d taken any LSD. Instead she apologized profusely.

I know who it was. He was looking for me.

My family has dabbled in witchcraft in the Ukraine for centuries. We still do. My grandmother once told me that she mated with a demon, after which, she stole this ring. Gran gave it to me many years ago, when we moved to the US. Look.

She held out her hand to show me the ring she wore on her middle finger. It was a big silver ornate band with a large yellow stone, a cat’s eye, a small version of the hideous eye I saw last night. Just looking at it gave me the chills.

I am really sorry this happened to you. I’ll pack it up and send it back home today. It’s obviously not safe to have here. Again, please accept my apology.

So what was I to do? I had little choice but to believe her, demons and all. The evidence was just too real. The only good thing about this whole experience was that my painting teacher excused my absences, my unfinished work, and she actually seemed to like me now! In fact, for the first time ever, I was the popular one at school!

Laine Berman

Las Vegas, 2007

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