Evelyn Mullins knew she sometimes saw things that weren’t there. Where other people saw only the harmless moving shadows cast by streetlights or car headlights or lights spilling out from buildings, she would often see more alarming things hiding in the darkness. She had learned not to warn others of these lurking dangers. What other people could not see; they could not believe. And what they could not believe, they pitied or mocked or scorned.
In the past, when Evelyn had insisted that people listen to her, it had not gone well for her. She tried not to think about those times too much—the tears and the shouting and the hypodermic needles and later, the windowless rooms and the five-point restraints, and the endless comings and goings of the men and women in white coats who treated her like a child and asked stupid questions.
Why was she so afraid of shadows?
Later, she heard the men and women joking among themselves. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you,” someone would always say.
Evelyn hated the mocking laughter that followed.
Sometimes she heard the laughter in her head when no one was there except her, but that didn’t make it any less real.
It had been her faith that sustained her. She’d been raised a Methodist, whose symbol was the cross and the flame. The man she had been married to once upon a time had mocked the church’s sigil, sneering that it depicted a burning cross and was therefore a racist symbol. Jeremy—or was it, Jonathan? Evelyn was no longer certain—had been an atheist. They had married in a courthouse. There had been no mention of God in their vows.
Since living on the streets, Evelyn had gravitated toward Catholicism. The local cathedral was located on what she considered her turf, and the priests there were kind to her. They never kicked her out on the cold days when she stepped inside to warm herself or questioned her right to be there during their services. She loved the smell of incense and candlewax, the drifting smoke of piety and supplication that blanketed her with a feeling of peace. She felt safe in the cathedral and her visits there nurtured not only her soul but her body for the priests ran a soup kitchen during the week, and handed out packages of thick, clean socks and toothbrushes and paste and those little soaps they used to give out in hotels.
The priests looked her in the eyes when they proffered these gifts, and often touched her hands affectionately. She could smell the hand sanitizer they used, but the notion of a disinfectant barrier against any germs she might carry struck her as necessary self-protection. It bothered her that she could not keep as clean as she wanted to. She wore all the clothes she owned, and even if she’d had the money to wash some of them in a laundromat, it was too cold to remove any of her layers.
And painful too—some of the layers were sealed to her skin with a glue composed of bodily fluids and grime and fast food debris.
Over the years do-gooders had tried to convince Evelyn to go to a warehouse—they’d called it a shelter—or take advantage of housing vouchers.
Wouldn’t you like to take a shower, Evelyn? Wash your hair?
She knew the do-gooders meant well, but she didn’t feel safe inside. Bad things happened inside. People shouted at you or poked needles into you. Or they made you talk about things you didn’t want to talk about, things that made you cry.
Evelyn had decided it was safer to stay outside, even if that meant she was always cold and often hungry.
She knew what she was up against on the street—the crazy people and the feral dogs, and the things that kept to the shadows. She kept to herself and pretended to be invisible and tried not to attract the wrong kind of attention.
And then one day, all her precautions failed her.
It had actually been a good day for Evelyn. After nearly a week of rain, the sun was out, and the bright sunlight belied the frigid temperatures. A guy getting off the subway had handed her a tenner, mistaking it for a single, and she’d bought some egg rolls, a couple of loose cigarettes, and a roll of fruit-flavored LifeSavers, her favorite. She was savoring the last glassy bit of flavored sugar when she saw the thing that was pacing her across the street. It was huge—easily the size of a city bus—and she couldn’t believe that no one else seemed to be aware of its presence. It was so big she was sure it had to generate its own weather, or at least cause a ripple in the air as it passed.
A disturbance in the force, she thought randomly, mesmerized by the sight of the thing, which seemed to be made of smoke and fire. And though it did not seem to have eyes, Evelyn knew it was tracking her. She was in mortal danger, she knew, and yet all around her, life swirled past, oblivious.
Or at least, the humans on the street were oblivious. The stray dogs whimpered and cowered and slunk away. The pigeons took wing like a flight of arrows shot in the opposite direction. The cockroaches that normally roiled the contents of dumpsters in every alley disappeared into hairline cracks in the sidewalks, draining into the cement-like dirty rainwater.
It was suddenly very quiet on Evelyn’s side of the sidewalk.
She suddenly felt very alone. She quickened her pace, trying not to be too obvious about it. She was sure the evil thing had noted her, but for some reason, it had not yet attacked. And then, up ahead, she saw the familiar bulk of St. Bartek’s Cathedral, and a sense of calm settled over her.
The cathedral doors were left unlocked, night and day, and once she crossed the threshold, she would be warm and safe, and untouchable. It made sense the evil thing was behaving cautiously. She didn’t know exactly what would happen if it tried to breach the divine doorway, but she expected that it would be smitten by the full force of righteous goodness.
Confident, she broke into a trot, ignoring the pain in the bunions on her feet, heedless of the stitch in her side.
The evil thing continued to pace her but in a leisurely way, and Evelyn lost sight of it as she pulled open the heavy doors and heaved herself inside the sanctuary, which was dark except for the guttering prayer candles. \Fortunately, Evelyn had a dark-adapted eye and so had no trouble negotiating her way to the altar, where she knelt and sobbed out a relieved prayer of thanks. But she had no sooner thought, Amen, then the doors burst into flames and the thing of smoke and fire came through.
And did not stop but flowed into the sanctuary, like an oil spill or a tsunami.
Because the creature was Nusku, a Babylonian demon known as the divine vizier of evil, the harbinger of a dark lord bent on destroying the world by fire. He was simply on a scouting mission but did not think his lord would begrudge him for having a little fun with the mortal whose aura had attracted him.
Jesus’ carved wooden eyes looked down on Evelyn as Nusku fell open her. Those eyes were full of impotent compassion, for though Evelyn was one of His own, He and His father had no dominion over the demon, who ate Evelyn from the feet up so that she experienced the full measure of pain and fear and despair before she finally, mercifully died.
The last thing she heard was mocking laughter that reminded her of the doctors back in the hospital, the ones who told her she suffered from an over-active imagination.
Katherine Tomlinson is a Pushcart Prize nominee for her short fiction. An award-winning essayist and editor, she works as a screenwriter and lifestyle reporter. Under the pen name Katherine Moore, she is a USA Today bestselling author. Born in Washington D.C., she is currently a digital nomad in Portugal.