By: Sharmini Wijeyesekera
Ruth led them into the garage.
She didn’t want to, but Mommy froze. After Mommy had gotten her and baby Chris dressed up in crisp, clean church clothes, led them through the day-lit kitchen, and propped the door to the garage open on her hip – she just stopped and stood there silent.
Ruth knew she had to help, so she grabbed Mommy’s hand and took the first step.
She wasn’t scared even though her dress shoes made a hollow sound on the wood step; and then another – tap, tap, tap – three little knocks and Ruth was half-in, half-out of the damp cavern.
She wasn’t scared of the murmurs, either – the low rumbles that echoed back at her – or the groan from the heater. Daddy had already explained, had already shined a flashlight behind the tall metal box, and showed her what was behind it: wire and dust and nothing else. The sound Ruth heard? That was just the sound of electricity working. The shadows? Only the dark spots where the heater blocked the light. Only that and nothing else. There was nothing to be afraid of; the devil couldn’t get into their house.
She wasn’t scared of the coldness that made the little hairs on her leg stand up and poke through her tights; she wasn’t even scared when she sensed the shadows gathering around her.
But when Ruth’s fingers slipped out of Mommy’s hand and she heard Mommy whisper, “Satan,” – then Ruth was really scared.
Abruptly, she turned around. “Mommy?” She asked, careful to hide any influence of the shadows. Mommy couldn’t know what Ruth was thinking about. She couldn’t realize that Ruth was afraid of the devil. If she knew – then Mommy might get afraid too and then Ruth would have failed. She wasn’t supposed to talk about devils and demons; she was supposed to help Mommy forget them. Now that Daddy had to go back to work and Grandma had left them, it was Ruth’s job to help Mommy get better.
Now Ruth tried to get her Mother’s attention so that Mommy would turn away from the heater.
“Shh,” Mommy whispered, her breath so strong it tugged the small hairs out of Ruth’s ponytail. “Shhh.”
“Mommy?” Ruth asked. Again. Patient. She grabbed at her mother’s dress and worked an index and pinky finger through the lace, stretching the holes into funny shapes. Baby Chris’s eyes were closed, and he looked so safe in his unaware-ness. Ruth was jealous. She wanted to be young, tiny, and protected by her own weakness so that Mommy would carry her around.
Shhh,” Mommy said and pulled her hand back behind the cracked door. Her mother’s white dress glowed in the light of the kitchen behind her, but her eyes were wide and unblinking, a reflection of the in-betweens, the underneaths, the behinds – all the dangerous unknown spaces of the garage.
Ruth wanted to go back into the day, but she knew she was doing a good thing by helping Mommy to get outside. She had to help Mommy take them on their surprise trip, wherever it was – Mommy hadn’t said, but Ruth knew it must be very special because they only got dressed up like this for special occasions.
“Mommy – you unlock the car and open the garage door, and I will take the baby and put him in his seat please, so we can go please,” Ruth asked, begged – tried out her best grown-up voice, while her fingers busied themselves making bunny movements in the stretched-lace holes of her mother’s dress.
“Shh,” Mommy said, and now Ruth was annoyed and angry, so she tried pulling on her mother’s dress.
“…let the children alone…Satan” Mommy said, finally taking a step. Her bare feet curled up to grip the edge of the step, the door slid down her hip. The kitchen shrunk. The light grew dimmer.
Ruth didn’t want to look. She wanted to play with the lace; to stroke the silk bow on her own dress. She knew she should think of Jesus and nice things like singing and praying, but her mind kept trying to see. Her neck turned – without Ruth’s permission – turned slowly towards the object of Mommy’s gaze.
And there they were. Two black, pointed, curved outlines that grew from the big metal square: the hot, growling machine in the corner of the garage.
“Not really,” Daddy said. “Just shadows. Just shapes, just the behinds of real-life objects, nothing that could hurt you.” This was a test, Ruth wouldn’t let herself be tricked. Rebekah was a liar.
The heater groaned.
Mommy took another step. The door slipped, the light shrunk. “Go to your seat,” she said, and Ruth didn’t hesitate. She jumped off the last step and made three long leaps over the concrete ground to the backdoor of the van. Like a dancer, the whole time keeping her eyes open to let in as much light as she could to keep track of the shadows.
They were just shadows. Just shapes made where the light didn’t reach – shapes sprawled across the walls and floor: jagged points growing from the bottom of the rake, a long snaking line that hung from the spokes of her bicycle, twisted, messy curls at the bottom of the rake.
Shadows weren’t alive. “They were just tricks of her mind” – that was what Daddy had said. And of course, Ruth never saw shadows when he was around.
But when he wasn’t – she wanted to be brave, but she couldn’t help it. She could feel them waiting for her to close her eyes, for the moment they were unobserved, so they could detach themselves from their objects and crawl across the floor. So that they could sneak up behind her, grab her, and drag her into the dark.
The heater groaned.
But she was safe for now. In the back seat of the van, with the one little light turned on and casting a halo around her car seat. And with Mommy now in the front seat, turning the keys in the ignition, making the car hum, warming them up; thus warning the shadows away. They would be out of the garage soon, and then they would all be safe, and Mommy would forget about the devil in the heater, and everything would be okay.
It was Rebekah’s fault – no, it was Ruth’s fault that Mommy talked to the shadows. Ruth crossed her ankles and kicked at the backseat, listening to Mommy pray. “…body of Christ…blood…blood, Christ, of you…,” Mommy whispered from the front seat. Ruth couldn’t see her face, just the mess of black hair draped around the steering wheel. Next to her the baby hiccupped, and when Ruth looked over to check on him, she noticed that Mommy had forgotten to put his seatbelt on. So, Ruth – because she was taking care of all of them – unbuckled her own seatbelt and climbed down to stretch the belt tight around the baby chair. Just like Daddy had shown her how to do.
“All safe now,” she whispered and wiped a little bubble of spit off his lips. “You’re such a good boy. Very holy.”
Then she got back in her own booster seat and confidently pressed her hand against the glass. The car vibrated her fingers – just a little – as she made them a V.
“…body of Christ…so righteous…in armor, Jesus…righteous…righteous…,” Mommy mumbled from the front seat. Ruth giggled. It reminded her of the ladies in church, when they raised their arms up in the air and started making baby talk at God.
Ruth blinked her left eye, then her right. She shifted her head and tried to line up the V of her fingers with the edge of the wood shelves. She slid her palm down the window and watched as the ghost of her handprint slowly faded away. The devil groaned.
It was Ruth’s fault. She was the one who’d shown Mommy the horns, the heater. It’s not what Ruth meant to do – make Mommy talk to the shadows. She’d just done it because she knew Mommy would come out into the garage and tell Ruth she was silly, that there were no devils in their garage. She was sure Mommy would hug her and tell her everything was okay.
Ruth pressed her palm against the window again, over the heater, blocking it out. But the glass was too cold, so she took her fingers off and shook them.
No, it was Rebekah’s fault. Because it was Rebekah who’d dragged Ruth outside and insisted on talking to the heater. “He’s not your friend,” that’s what Rebekah had said – like she knew everything about Ruth’s house. Like she had more power over what happened in that garage than Ruth herself. Rebekah had sat there with her hand pressed up against the metal while Ruth whined at her, “No, this is stupid, let’s go.” Until Rebekah had turned around with a smile. “It’s okay, he’ll be nice to you as long as I’m here. But he doesn’t like people talking about him. You better be careful.”
Mommy wasn’t moving. Ruth unbuckled her seatbelt and climbed up into the front seat of the car, so she could reach Mommy’s hair. She stroked it the way Grandma stroked Ruth’s hair while she was putting her to sleep. Mommy’s hair was heavy and slick, and it clung to Ruth’s fingers.
“Don’t feel sad,” Ruth said.
Mommy lifted her chin off the steering wheel. “Let the children alone,” she told the garage; she bore her teeth.
“It’s not real,” Ruth said, moving hair away from her mother’s eye. “It’s just a shadow. Just electricity. Daddy showed me.”
Mommy’s head jerked up suddenly. “Daddy is not righteous,” she growled, and Ruth curled backwards into the big front seat. She wasn’t scared. This was just Mommy’s sad. Her demons were all gone – Pastor Sam had taken them away, in front of the ladies in white who shrieked and talked baby talk to God. Ruth had seen it herself – but now, well, now it would still take time for Mommy to be better again. Ruth had to be patient.
She pulled the latch and opened the little car slot looking for the white button that opened the garage door. Ruth would be helpful – if Mommy wanted to sit in the garage all day. Okay, Ruth could be patient, but she just didn’t want to sit in the dark.
But she couldn’t find the button. Ruth got down on her knees and stuck her hand under the seat. She leaned close enough to Mommy that she could smell the sour on Mommy’s breath and stuck her hand under Mommy’s seat. The button wasn’t there either.
“Ruthie,” Mommy reached out a hand and touched Ruth’s cheek. “My good girl. You’re my good girl.” She lifted her chin off the steering wheel. Her face seemed to melt, to soften. She brought Ruth’s cheek close to her and kissed it.
“It’s okay, Mommy,” Ruth said. She held her mother’s arm, stroked her hand. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
“My good girl,” Mommy said. Then, she put her head back down against the steering wheel.
The heater groaned. Ruth reached up to rub her forehead – the way adults did when they were trying to remember. She felt sleepy. Achy. The car still vibrated gently, but Mommy’s hands weren’t even on the steering wheel. Ruth understood. This was like when Mommy napped in the closet; they could sit there for hours.
She didn’t want to though. The shadows were still there, blurry in the corner of her eyes. And her head was starting to hurt – it felt tight, stretched, the room had turned fuzzy like she’d just woken up.
An emergency. Yes. Daddy would think so. Ruth would call him. He couldn’t be mad at her for calling him in an emergency, and an emergency was any time Mommy stopped paying attention and hid. She reached up and stretched the skin on her forehead and felt better because now she had a mission. Slowly, she crawled over the floor to the door. Slowly, she pulled the handle. Slowly, she pushed the door outward. Slowly, she untangled her right leg to reach it out into the garage.
Mommy caught her arm in a tight grip. “No, Ruthie,” her mother said. She held on.
Ruth tried to loosen the grip.
“It’s okay, Mommy. It’s okay, please. I’m just gonna call Daddy; then I’ll come back. Please. Then, you can be sad, please.”
“Daddy is not righteous…,” her mother whispered. She shook her head slowly; her eyes seemed to roll back and forth. “The children are righteous,” Mommy said. “Righteous, righteous…Pray, Ruthie, pray!” Mommy squeezed her arm again, and Ruth started to pray. Slowly. Sang the song they sang in Sunday school all the time, and the one Grandma and she sang at night before going to bed. “Jesus loves me, this I know,” she sang and waited, while the shadows danced around the corners of her eyes. She prayed with her mouth and prayed with her toes – pulsed her big ones, 2, 3, please, Jesus; pinkies, two, three, please, Jesus. She could sense the shadows grow bigger while they waited. She could see the horns rising. Coming away from the heater. Not even waiting for her to close her eyes now.
Ruth felt sick, sleepy; Now she couldn’t think, she just knew she had to get out of the car. Mommy’s grip loosened, and Ruth slipped out of it and onto the concrete floor. Her back hurt.
The devil…the devil was making her sick. She faced the heater. It groaned, a deep, loud noise that shook the whole garage. She just had to get to the kitchen, get passed the heater. She took a step. Her legs felt wobbly. The air felt like water. Her own breath was so loud, louder than her – was that her own breath? It sounded like it was coming from behind her, and in front of her, and beside her, and from above. She took another step. Her knee gave out, and she fell to the ground. That’s okay, she would just rest now. Daddy would be home soon, and then he would find them, and everything would be okay.
Would Daddy be mad? Ruth hadn’t told him; she couldn’t tell him. It was her fault Mommy was crazy now. Because Ruth had told her about the heater. Ruth hadn’t told Daddy. She showed Mommy the heater. She didn’t want him to be mad at her.
She lay back on the ground and watched the beams of the ceiling. The shadows were there, dancing in between the attic beams in blurry streaks and dots. Ruth tried not to cry – she’d failed now. Daddy had trusted her to take care of them all, but she couldn’t even get Mommy to pay attention. Her eyes filled with tears as the shadow horns slowly floated over her body. They slowly grew and stretched and reached high, high above her.
“Shhh,” she heard. “Shhh.”
Yes, it was there, too. Light. Next to the horns, playing with the horns. Between the shadows – they were slowly fading like her palm print on the window. It was okay. She had prayed and Jesus was going to save her. Mommy had been right. Pray. Pray.
She pulsed her pinkies. “Please Jesus,” two, three, four. She pulsed her big toes: “Please Jesus, two, three, four.” The light had grown. Now it had eaten up all the shapes in the back of her vision, in the corner of her eyes. It had pushed the horns back. They were shrinking again, returning to the heater.
The light came down towards Ruth. It tickled her arms. It danced across her eyelashes. It tugged Ruth’s hair. Playful. Ruth giggled, she didn’t know she could have so much fun here in the garage. She tried to pulse her toes again – Please, Jesus…but she couldn’t move. She couldn’t even feel her toes anymore. They had turned to light.
“Shhh,” she heard. “Shhh.”
It smelled sweet – the light – smelled like Grandma’s bed sheets. It smelled like the bath she’d taken that morning, Mommy scrubbing her back softly and humming a prayer. The light hugged her. The light brushed her forehead; the light got underneath her body and made a bed for her to sleep on.
“Angel,” Ruth whispered. And then she closed her eyes.