I met the devil in my dreams and he told me this would happen.
Strictly speaking, he wasn’t the devil; he was Joseph Ruskin, the actor who played the genie in the Twilight Zone episode The Man in the Bottle. But in my dream he was the devil, all right. I saw him standing near the end of a railway tunnel, silhouetted against the light, a man in a black suit. Did I tell you the tunnel was made out of elephants? Well, it was. Their bodies were packed together to make the walls and the roof, tight as sardines they were, and as I walked past them toward the man in the suit I could see their eyes blinking at me. I didn’t want to go, but he was waving me over, and when the devil waves you over, you go over, you don’t get a choice in the matter. And then Joseph Ruskin the devil told me my son James was going to be involved in a mass shooting. He wouldn’t say when, wouldn’t say how. I asked. I begged. I pleaded. They say the devil is in the details, but he doesn’t like to give them, because all I got out of him was a cold smile and this: A lot of people are going to die, Anna, because of him. The devil knew my name. He knew my son’s name. He knew what was going to happen. And it did. Sixteen people lying in the morgue; four or five times that number lying injured in this hospital. Women and children — children. I don’t want to think about it. I swear I tried to find out more, but Jimmy’s screams from the next room tore me right out of the dream and ended the whole thing. At least I thought_ it was over, but… do you think he _knew, doctor, even back then? Do you think he knew and tried to stop me talking to the devil before I could find something out — something that could have stopped all this?
Okay, I’ll try. Deep breath. Here’s what happened next…
I climbed out of bed and staggered down the hall toward Jimmy’s bedroom. My mind was still in that funny dream space, so I wasn’t all that surprised to see the devil again, standing outside Jimmy’s door like some kind of usher, grinning at me through the dark. A mouth shouldn’t hold that many teeth, I thought.
But it wasn’t him. If the devil existed, he didn’t often visit two-bedroom apartments on the outskirts of Chicago, not with so much to keep him hard at it in the Middle East. It was a trick of the night and I had no time to think any more about it — Jimmy was crying. Jimmy was always crying, and as I scooped him up and held him in the projector light of his Winnie the Pooh mobile I felt a tiny squirt of breast milk against the inside of my nightshirt. It had happened only a couple of times before, but I never found it to be quite so unpleasant. I sat on the nursing chair with Jimmy wailing in my arms, and he smelled the milk on me like a vampire smells blood. His little mouth searched the gloom for the comfort and reward of my nipple. Only — I didn’t give it to him. I couldn’t give it to him. Whenever he came close, I hunched and withdrew. Because running round and round my head were the words: _people are going to die… people are going to die. _I stood up fast and dropped Jimmy back into the cot like fourteen pounds of hot rock. He screamed, though it wasn’t in pain: the mattress was soft. It was anger that I heard. Self consciously, I covered my breast. Then I left him to go search in the kitchen for the tub of formula.
When Jimmy turned five he started to show a real interest in animals. I did what every parent does and took him to the petting zoo. Soon after that I took him to Lincoln Park, to what he called the big zoo with the proper animals. Lions and tigers and bears — oh my! The moment we left, following his first trip there, he wanted to go right back. “I miss them,” he said.
“That’s nice to hear, Jimmy.”
“But why are they so sad all the time, momma?”
“Who’s sad, hon?”
“The animals. On TV they run around a lot. But there they just sit in the shadows and don’t do much at all. Why?”
I thought about making something up, one of those white lies that all parents tell their kids, but I opted for a slice of cold, hard truth instead. Besides, I’d snapped a heel on my new pair of shoes walking around the place, and I was sick to death of zoos already. The heat. The smell of shit everywhere. The heat. And how the animals sat there all doe-eyed — even the non-does — like they wouldn’t tear your throat out the first chance they got.
“They’re in cages, James. They’re sad because they aren’t allowed out.”
“Why, momma?” he repeated, the mantra of every child everywhere.
“Well, animals don’t like being put in cages,” I said. “It makes them go a little… doolally.”
Jimmy laughed at that word. “What does do-lolly mean?”
“It means out of their mind, crazy. You know, some of those animals can’t be allowed out ever.”
“You mean the lions and tigers, don’t you? Because they’d eat you.”
“They’d eat you too,” I said. “Probably before me. To them you’re smaller and weaker.”
“But you’re more food,” Jimmy said.
“Are you calling me fat?”
“No, momma. Anyway, they won’t eat me — they know who I am.”
“And who are you, James?”
He looked me straight in the eye and said: “I’m one of them.”
Something snapped inside me as the dream — and Joseph Ruskin, the devil or genie, whatever the hell he was meant to be — came rushing back. A dark wave fell over me, and in its cold, foaming aftermath I marched my son to his bedroom, where I pushed him through the door and then locked it from the outside. “You want to be an animal, James Keller? I’ll treat you like one.”
Sometimes a parent’s means don’t quite line up with their intended end.
“The next two words out of your mouth better be ‘I’m sorry’ or I’m never letting you out of there — never!”
I thought, if I keep him in there it won’t happen. Nobody will die if he’s locked up.
But that was stupid and I was scared. A good parent is always scared, and I had to try and cope with the extra fear that my son would grow up to be a killer.
Maybe, I told myself.
Yes, maybe. If the devil was real. If he’d visited me in a dream. If he’d spoken the truth. And if anything in your dreams could somehow turn into fact. Which is a lot of farfetched ifs. But then, maybe doesn’t go away and ifs don’t quit. If I’d known anything for sure, I would have aborted him myself. But you don’t know; you don’t know a damn thing about how your child will turn out. Not until it’s too late.
Four hours later, Jimmy apologized and I let him out. I was surprised he held on for so long. Four hours to a boy that age is nearly a lifetime.
With most kids it’s dinosaurs, but Jimmy loved elephants.
Jimmy loved elephants right around the same time mommy went on Prozac. Deadbeat daddy had quit paying child support and disappeared off the radar. Suddenly, I found myself forced to work two jobs, one as a waitress in the local diner, the other as a stripper in some small out-of-town bar where I prayed to God nobody knew my name. Jimmy was eight years old, and I was doing everything I could to keep him from being a lowlife in his later years. Everyone knows it’s the lowlifes that pick up the guns and start shooting people. My aim was to get Jimmy an education and pray for two things: that my dream was bullshit and that he had the brains to make the right choices in life.
But Jimmy loved elephants.
Stupid me, I let him play with them too. I even bought some for his birthday, more stuffed elephants than he knew what to do with. Most of them were inexpensive, even for being second-hand, because most kids didn’t want plush elephants. But I figured they made him happy, and I wanted him to be happy. Happy people didn’t kill anyone. Of course, I’d forgotten about the elephants in my dream.
Two months later, Jimmy was nine and watching a DVD in his room. I was lying on the living room couch, weighing up another proposal from one of the regulars at my night job. An indecent proposal, like the movie. Only, this guy looked nothing like Robert Redford and didn’t offer me a cool mil for the night. Ten bucks and a handjob in the car park around back. I thought that if I could get him up to fifteen I could drop a ten on groceries and stick five in Jimmy’s college fund. My mind was almost made up when I drifted off to sleep.
I had the dream again. The exact same dream.
I woke up feeling stupid.
Stupid and angry.
In the bathroom, I slapped cold water on my face; not much water, plenty of slap. Then I marched into Jimmy’s room. I found him sitting in the middle of the floor with an official plush Dumbo I’d bought for his ninth birthday — because I couldn’t afford to buy it for his fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth — perched there on his right knee as they watched a DVD together. Something with guns and aliens and that black actor, Will whatshisname. I don’t know; I don’t have time to watch these things.
I switched the television off and stood in front it, facing my son. My cheeks were on fire. My hands shook. Jimmy looked at me. Dumbo looked at me. Gather up your soft toys, I told him. Just the elephants. Jimmy looked at me. Dumbo looked at me. Just do it, I said, no arguments. And eventually he gave in, head down, long-armed, rocking from side-to-side, but handing them over one by one. Until we got to Dumbo.
“Can I just keep this one?” he asked. “He’s my favorite.”
Dumbo had cost me the equivalent of two handjobs. Two filthy, demeaning stranger’s-cock-rubbing handjobs, and even though I hadn’t carried out the actual acts, the money I had blindly wasted on that plush and the thought of what I would possibly have to do to recoup it made me go a little… do-lolly, as Jimmy had put it.
“Give him to me,” I said.
But Jimmy refused to hand him over.
I grabbed Dumbo by one of his giant ears and yanked him right out of my son’s hands. When I returned with a garbage sack, the rest of the plush elephants lay on the floor where I’d left them, but Dumbo was gone. Where is it? I asked. Jimmy wouldn’t say. It took me ten minutes to guess where he’d put that last elephant, and so by the time I had my hands around that little grey throat I was more than a little do-lolly, I was livid. I held Dumbo’s trunk and swung him at Jimmy’s head. Don’t. You. Under. Stand. What. I’m. Trying. To. Prevent. Here?
I said more, much more, and I punctuated every few words with another Dumbo beating. By the time I was finished, there wasn’t a single bruise on Jimmy but the stuffing was spilling out of the elephant’s split seams. Jimmy was crying, nonetheless; he had white cotton guts stuck to his curly brown hair and his mom was taking away his favorite toy.
I gathered all the plushes in the garbage bag and then left Jimmy sobbing to carry the bag out to the street. When the fresh air struck me, I thought about heading back inside to tell him about the dream; the now recurring dream. Maybe if he knew what I was afraid of, the black cloud looming over his future (and the futures of how many others? I thought) then he might understand why I did what I did. Then, maybe if I told him everything I would set him firmly on that path. My head ached as I dropped the bag of elephants into the garbage can. If I hadn’t looked down, if I had only replaced the lid and walked back inside the house instead of seeing what I saw, the course of history might have changed. But the devil is in the details and the elephants were stuffed inside the garbage can. To get them to fit, I had to push and pack them in there. Maybe it was the Prozac, I don’t know, but I swear I saw one of them blink.
I slammed down the lid and went back inside.
Between the ages of nine and seventeen, Jimmy got himself into all kinds of heat. Take a dozen random teenagers out of a crowd and ask them the kind of trouble they got into between those ages and you’d end up with a long and doubtless colourful list. Jimmy did nothing that wasn’t on that list. He wasn’t into anything different, or hardcore as they say these days; he was your typical teenage boy. Except he was one kid, not a dozen, and he did all of that stuff completely on his own.
And then everything changed. Jimmy got accepted into the Cadet training program at the Chicago Police Academy four months after he turned seventeen, and in the space of a single night I witnessed a switch inside him flip itself from OFF to ON. We Serve and Protect. Such beautiful, beautiful words. They surely followed me into my sleep because for the first two months after Jimmy enrolled I never had my recurring dream again; I never walked through the tunnel of elephants, never saw Joseph Ruskin’s smile nor listened to him tell me that a lot of people were going to die because of my son. Even when I did have the dream — because it was hard letting go of something I’d carried with me for so long — I was able to tell the devil to go fuck himself. Beautiful words indeed.
But take anything beautiful and it was only a matter of time before it turned into shit.
I came home one afternoon from a shift at the diner to find Jimmy sprawled on the couch, a dozen empty Budweiser bottles scattered around him on the floor, a smoking joint sitting right the ashtray, and the son of a bitch alone: no friends; no _girl_friends; no one to share it with. I didn’t see a celebration, I saw a loner surrounded by bullet casings, lying next to a smoking gun. Nine months. Nine months it took him, and all of my wishes, hopes and prayers — stillborn.
“Get up,” I said.
He didn’t respond.
Dare I hope? I thought.
No. He isn’t. Stop.
But eighteen years was a long time to spend looking at your son for signs he was a monster. It drained you. And every year it somehow grew worse. He was at the age of high probability now; he could go out, buy himself a gun and a few thousand rounds of ammunition, and start making plans. What made it even worse was knowing he would do it all in utter secrecy. Afterward, someone would likely discover YouTube videos and message-board postings and secret hidden documents on his computer, but not before, not until after the shots were fired and the guns tagged and bagged for evidence.
Jimmy rolled on the couch and curled into a tight ball. Eighteen going on eight. I felt something tug inside my chest, but squashed it like a bug. Then I grabbed his shoulder and shook him hard. He groaned, stirred, but it was a long swim back through that ocean of booze.
“Jimmy, wake up.”
It’s a cancer, I thought. It’s shooting and killing and chaos, over in seconds or minutes like a heart attack, but the cause — the cause is there his whole life, rooted, like a cancer.
“Jimmy, wake the hell up. What have you done this time? I wanna know. Son of a bitch!”
Shaking him didn’t work. Punching his arm didn’t work.
A pot full of water and ice — it worked.
He yelled and shot up from the couch, but his legs rubber-strawed and he went down again onto the rug just as fast. He rolled onto his back.
“What’s happened?” I asked, struggling to keep the hysteria out of my voice. “Why are you home and not in class? And what are you thinking_ — _smoking pot and drinking in my house?”
He smiled at me from the floor; no, he grinned. A shit-eating grin if ever I saw one. The same kind the devil wore in my dream. Which made a kind of poetic sense. Only, I hated that word: dream. A dream was not real, not true; it was a bunch of synapses firing blanks inside your brain. But the kids who teased me when I was six years old, they were real. The male supply teacher who nicknamed me Carrie White — who laughed when the other kids picked up on it and started using it too, even though I wasn’t psychic and they didn’t know who Carrie White or Stephen King was — he was real. And the dream I had, in which my father died, not in the same way I dreamt it, of course, but still he died, that had been very real. You don’t get over something like that once, never mind twice.
“They kicked me out a month ago,” Jimmy said. “Caught me smoking a J. Hell, the assholes wanted rid of me anyway, have for months. Don’t worry ‘bout it, momma, this is my morning off. I’ve got —”
I leaned down and snapped the sentence in half with the back of my hand.
“You got canned, that’s what you got,” I screamed. “Oh God, oh Jesus, you had to go and ruin everything. You were safe there, Jimmy. We were safe. I didn’t have to keep such a close eye on you.”
“Don’t start talking crazy, momma. Not now, please. My head hurts.” He closed his eyes then got up in stages. He stood, swaying, seemingly waiting for the world to stop spinning away from him.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked.
“My room,” he said. “Not that it’s any of yours.”
Another slap, this one hard enough to turn him half-around. He didn’t fall though; he opened his eyes, blinked, rubbed the red bloom on his lower jaw, and blinked again.
“Don’t hit me,” he said through clenched teeth. “We elephants never forget.”
Threaten me? I went for a third for my collection, but he stepped out of his drunkenness like it was a suit he had on and grabbed my wrist with one hand. With the other, he broke my jaw.
“If you’da just let me finish,” he said, “I could’ve told you I’ve been working another job.”
They all think they’re on the right side of the fence until the shooting starts. The Remmy 870 is for crowd control, the .40 caliber Glock for what he likes to call the “fine tuning.” He starts with the Glock. They’re all so busy gawping and pointing at the animals, taking pictures so they can gawp and point at them again later with their friends, they don’t even know something’s wrong until the third one is down and bleeding buckets onto the floor. Then — then it’s pandemonium. Women and children first? No way. Survival of the fittest? Not really. It’s what he calls the Lottery of Life. Either you’ve got a winning ticket or there’s a bullet with your brains on it. Only, this is rollover week, suckers, and it will remain rollover week for as long he has rounds left in the chamber. Choom (four)… choom (five)… choom, choom, choom, leg, chest, shoulder, ‘cause this one reminds him of the bitch — choom — let’s make it four (headshot) who broke his goddamn heart. Who’s next? Choom. That would be you, kid. And here’s — choom — one for your momma, too. Hey, check out the bald guy… he’s climbing into the enclosure with the elephants… Holy shit, did I just see that? Did I just see some guy get trampled by _Dumbo? Man, that’s fucking cool. But I barely caught it for these guys scurrying around like rats. Remmy time, suckers. Who wants their ticket, huh? BLAM… BLAM… BLAM-O!_
I was sitting in the emergency room waiting area when reports of the shooting at Lincoln Park Zoo first appeared on the local news stations. In minutes, the story would detonate worldwide. Nine people dead so far, according to early reports, including one four-year-old girl. But the count was as yet unconfirmed, which translated into it’s likely to get a lot higher, folks, so stay tuned! The shooter was as yet unidentified. More after these messages.
People stabbed their cell phones for updates. The payphone on the wall had a line for the first time in its life. The hypochondriacs bit down on the pain they hadn’t felt in the first place and remained silent. My attention fixed itself on the tiny wall-mounted box while I waited along with everyone else for further news.
“Jimmy,” I murmured. Then louder, “Jimmy.”
A bottle of soda hit the tile floor, exploded. Nobody groaned, nobody commented. I glanced down. Pepsi. It looked like a giant hole in the floor. The overhead tube lighting reflected back at me from the darkness spreading below my feet, making me feel disoriented, dizzy. I saw a familiar face reflected in it and looked up quickly to see the devil standing underneath the TV; Joseph Ruskin in a black suit, black tie, and a light-colored hat with a dark hatband. He smiled at me across the waiting room, then slowly tilted his head forward to indicate the person sitting to my left.
My son, James Keller: mouth open; eyes wide and TV-bound; left hand clawed in a C, from which he’d let the soda bottle slip and fall. As I drove us to the hospital, he’d apologzsed a thousand times for punching me, blaming the beer and a lifetime of suffocation for one moment of lashing out; he told me if I’d only listened for a second he could have given me the good news. He’d started a new job two weeks ago. Security guard at Lincoln Park Zoo.
The elephant enclosure, after his pleading request, was part of his patrol zone.
“I was supposed to be there,” he said, watching the television. “I could have put a stop to it if… if we hadn’t come here.”
I had nothing to say to that mom-beating son of a bitch. After a lifetime of worry and fear, I finally understood. I turned toward Joseph Ruskin, who nodded, tipped his hat, and then strolled from the waiting room into the night.
A lot of people are going to die, Anna, because of him.
That’s when I must have passed out, doctor. It’s a rotten twist to the story, and maybe I ought to have seen it coming, because isn’t there always a twist to stories about the devil? Half my life spent believing his words, half my life doubting them, but in the end he tricked me by being the genie all along. Every mother wishes her son will grow up to be a hero. I had my wish. I had it the whole time and didn’t see it.
I had it.
Until someone snatched it away.
About the Author
Steven has published short fiction in over seventy print and online markets, including Black Static, Interzone, and Crimewave. “A Trick of the Night” explores a common theme in his work since becoming a father in 2011: the fears of parenting. Originally from the north east of Scotland, he currently lives in Salisbury, England, with his wife and son. For more information, visit stevenjdines.com.