Before we lost the contract to Duke University, the work from Fort Campbell had been pretty steady and pretty much the same—soldiers came back from Afghanistan with some kind of terrible and malignant curse and we removed said terrible and malignant curse. The important thing was that it paid well.
The Department of Defense replaced us with Duke because Duke does what I informally call “the woo-woo shit” in their parapsychology department. If the Army, for instance, wants to see if demon-infused soldiers offer advantages over mere mortals, nobody at Duke has to sit around and discuss the moral and theological implications. Since our “woo-woo shit” comes out of Vanderbilt’s divinity school, there’s a lot of stuff we won’t do if the department decides it’s wrong. Such decisions often consternated my advisor, Professor Harrison, who was certain there were important articles he alone could write about what he wanted to call “The Vanderbilt Experiments,” but, obviously, couldn’t, if Duke had the contract and thus was doing the experimenting.
I was a grad student at the Vanderbilt Divinity School, which is not cheap. I paid for school through a web of grants and fellowships and, until three months ago, money from that DoD contract. I needed that money. My parents were living in a trailer in Smyrna with my brother, where I was afraid I was about to end up as well. My step-dad hadn’t worked since ’08 and my mom was working part-time at Walmart and the Quick-Sak just to put groceries on their table. My little brother had a job at Nissan, thank goodness, but that had to support him, his girlfriend, their baby, and our youngest brother, with the extra money going to Mom and Bill when he had it.
I can’t begin to tell you both how guilty I felt, sitting in school when money was so tight, and how desperate I was to not have to go back home and find a job and get married and have a bunch of kids and sit in my little corner of the world afraid of ever venturing out.
“You don’t want to end up like me?” My mom asked, whenever I tried to talk to her about this.
“No, Mom, that’s not what I’m saying,” I said. “After all, you moved to Smyrna. You got out.”
“It’s not like it’s just a choice between getting everything you dreamed of and being stuck with everything you’re afraid of.” She paused. And sighed. And probably took a drag off her cigarette. “You can always come home. It’s not the end of the world.”
“I can’t, Mom,” I said. “I just can’t.”
“Well, you just concentrate on school,” she said. But I heard it in her voice that she felt I was judging her. “If we have to ask your father’s people for money, I will.” Neither of us had seen my dad in years. People talked like he was still around, but it was hard to tell with him.
“Oh, god, no. Mom,” I begged. “Please, let’s not involve them.”
“They’re proud of you, you know,” she said. “First girl in the family to go to college. I heard he’s telling everyone back home what a good job you’re going to have, how his girl is going to sit at a desk all day, and not have to break her back to earn her living. He understands you.” The message being that she didn’t.
“He never said that kind of stuff to me.” Actually, he never talked to me. I mean, literally, never. When I went to see him, from the time I was a child, it was always my uncle who did the communicating for both of them. Which was fine, because my dad scared the shit out of me. The less he paid attention to me, the better. These days, I was pretty sure my dad thought I’d betrayed him by leaving the mountain and I knew he was relentlessly unforgiving. Even if he was proud of me.
“He’s never been easy. That’s why I married Bill, not him. But you got nothing to worry about. You’ll get a big fancy job and he’ll be acting like he got it for you.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the job prospects of a person with a PhD in Occult Studies are limited. Teaching positions don’t open up very often and the freelance gigs don’t pay very well (which is why I didn’t dare take out student loans). The steady work, like Duke’s demon-infused soldier program, often disgusted me.
Speaking of Duke’s demon-infused soldier program, it was, judging by the evidence in front of me, not going well. They’d called us in to see if we could help get things back on track. If we could, Duke would cut us in on the grant money and the research results. Obviously, that was important to us. So, there we were in one room, separated from one Corporal Baldwin by a thick sheet of one-way glass. He sat in the other room, tied to the lone piece of furniture in the room—a wooden arm chair with thick steel legs. He wore only loose sweatpants so the extent of damage to his battered body was evident. He was missing one ear completely. The bottom of the other one looked like it had been torn off. All his toes were gone. His nose was bruised almost black and broken so severely I couldn’t look straight at it without cringing. He was missing all but his pointer and thumb on one hand and the pinky on the other.
Even though he’d been so thoroughly and carefully restrained, I saw his mouth was bleeding and, as we stood there, he was calmly gnawing on his bottom lip. If they didn’t gag him in some way, he’d surely eat it off.
I had to turn away. “Jesus Christ,” I gagged.
Putting a demon into a body that still has a soul is like putting a rabid dog in a too-small crate with an adorable puppy. That puppy’s probably not going to make it out, you know? Whatever was in Baldwin was trying to evict him to make enough room for itself. Maybe then the rabid dog analogy isn’t fair. The situation was extremely painful for both person and demon, but the demon was stronger, so Baldwin was going to lose.
Julie Zinotti was Duke’s point person on this. I knew her from the few conferences in our field. She fancied herself an occultist/scientist in the vein of Jack Parsons and she didn’t appreciate if you reminded her how L. Ron Hubbard had made a fool of him. She had some blind spots but her work was good.
“Why would you do this?” I asked her.
“I thought the demon was weak enough that a soldier could control him,” she said, fidgeting with her long, black hair. “Daisy, really, I took all the necessary precautions. The bindings I inscribed on Baldwin should have held.”
“I don’t see any inscriptions,” I said.
“He undid them,” she said, simply.
“Impossible,” Professor Harrison said. “How can a demon young enough to be captured be smart enough to undo a binding spell?”
I was watching as the thing moved across Baldwin’s face, something subtle in the difference between how Baldwin looked in his skin and how the demon wore it.
“Maybe he’s not young,” I said. “Maybe he was just injured. A coyote will let you approach it if it’s too injured to move. So will most birds.”
“Ridiculous,” Professor Harrison said. The professor and I had this disagreement regularly. He believed demons were, by definition, supernatural. Not from here, not of this mundane earth. I believed there wasn’t anything in nature that wasn’t of nature. You might not know the thing before you, but its unnatural acts only seemed that way because we didn’t know enough about nature to have the right comparison.
“I’ll go in and get set up for the exorcism,” Professor Harrison said.
“That’s not a good idea,” Julie said. “Jim died doing that last week.” Jim was Julie’s project partner and one of the people on her dissertation committee.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. She shrugged sadly.
The demon began to rock slightly in his chair and then he said, “Send me that hillbilly woman.” I looked around, but no one else matched that description.
“I guess it means me,” I said. I carried a folding chair in with me and sat across from it.
For a long while it didn’t say anything and I stayed quiet, waiting. And then it said, “I’m going to kill Baldwin here.”
“I wish you wouldn’t,” I said.
“Gonna kill him just like I killed those other ones,” it said.
“Other ones?” Ugh, what a rookie mistake. Never ask a demon a question you don’t already know the answer to. Otherwise, you’re just giving it a way into your head.
“They didn’t tell you?” it grinned, or at least, I think it attempted to grin. It was hard to tell with as swollen as its lip was. “Baldwin’s my seventh.”
It was horrifying, the idea that they were just letting it slaughter its way through these enlisted men in order to see if one might be strong enough to subdue it. I stayed quiet, rather than confirm to it that it’d shook me.
“You know, we have women like you back home,” it said. “‘Easy to catch, impossible to fetch.’” I’m sure I flinched. I tried not to but I was so shocked to hear that phrase that I know I didn’t mask my surprise. It took me a minute to respond.
“Did you know Jimmy Martin died?” I asked.
“Yeah,” it said. “That was a while back. Too bad. Lots of good musicians came out of Bill Monroe’s band, but he was the best.”
“Yeah,” I echoed without quite realizing it. I tried to hold myself steady, but I could feel the sweat running down my back, and I knew I had to be noticeably shaking. I tried to keep my face as placid as possible. Under my breath, I whispered, “Dad?” The demon’s eyes brightened just a bit and, slightly, so slightly, he shook his head no. “Uncle Asra?” I mouthed. I knew it had to be one or the other. They’re the only two demons I’ve ever heard of who give a shit about bluegrass.
A very slight smile crept across poor Baldwin’s face. So, Asra it was.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Just hold off on Baldwin until then.” I stood up and walked back into the other room. It watched me intently.
“What did you learn?” Professor Harrison asked. “What could you have learned in such a short amount of time?”
“It can see us through the one-way glass,” I said.
“Who’s Jimmy Martin?” Professor Harrison asked, growing exasperated.
“The King of Bluegrass,” I said. “ ‘Sunny Side of the Mountain’? ‘Widow Maker’?”
“And what’s the point of that little exchange?” Professor Harrison was now very angry, though he would never admit that to himself. Acknowledging he was angry would entail admitting there was something I knew about that he didn’t and how could that possibly be?
“Mahala Mullins was a famous moonshiner from East Tennessee, over by Sneedville, where my dad’s from,” I explained. “She was a very large woman, so the police had no problem going up the mountain and arresting her, but they couldn’t carry her off the mountain to put her in jail. ‘Easy to catch, impossible to fetch.’ I wasn’t sure at first if the demon was specifically referring to her. I mean, I guess any number of places with obstacles and criminal fat women could have that saying. But it knew who Jimmy Martin was. Didn’t even bat an eye. So, yeah, around Sneedville. If that’s not where it originated, it at least spent some time there.”
“And?” Professor Harrison asked.
“If we know where it’s from, we know who it is. If we know who it is, we have an advantage,” I said. Yes, I was neglecting to tell them that I knew it was from Sneedville for a fact, because that demon in there was kin. I was afraid if they found that out they’d either send me home due to my enormous conflict of interest, or tie me to a chair and let Harrison and what was left of the Duke team run experiments on me.
“It’s from Hell,” Professor Harrison answered. “We know what it is: the Devil’s minion. Not some redneck from some Appalachian village.” I shrugged. Demons respond to Christian iconography, but I wasn’t convinced they were actually Christian things. Not that I spent a lot of time with that side of the family, but they seemed to have their own religions and superstitions. As for the ‘Appalachian village’ dig, I’d learned to let that kind of stuff slide.
When I got back to my apartment, I found fifty dollars in my back pocket. Five brand new ten dollar bills, with nary a crease or a wrinkle but the one that folded them in half. I carry my money in my purse. And, even if I did somehow, some time ago, leave fifty dollars in the back pocket of these jeans, it’d have had to go through the wash. These were new bills.
This meant that the demon had some limited mobility outside of Baldwin. I was trying to decide if there was some way to exploit this—maybe give Baldwin some respite—when my step-dad knocked at the door. He was already a little drunk.
“Hey, Daddy,” I hugged him and let him in.
“Hey, sugar,” he slouched into one of the wooden kitchen chairs.
“You want a beer?” I asked, getting one for myself from the fridge.
“Sure,” he said, taking the can I handed him. We chatted some about how he was doing, and then he got down to business. “But listen, you know it’s your momma’s birthday coming up and I want to get her something nice, but I got no money. Now, I hate to ask–”
But I was already fishing the wad of cash back out of my pocket. I hadn’t had it long enough to miss it. I just took out three bills. I had a feeling he would spend most of it on beer and my mom would end up with gas station roses she’d pretend to love. But I couldn’t tell him “no.”
“Thank you, baby,” he said, getting a little teary-eyed.
“Daddy,” I wanted to change the subject to something less awkward. “How do you think Granny would have healed an animal?”
“You mean, nurse it back to health?”
“No,” I said, taking another drink. My mom’s mom was rumored to have had powers. I always imagined that’s how my dad came to be acquainted with the family. “I mean, something that was hurt that you couldn’t get close enough to touch. Like a fox with a broken leg.”
“Oh, don’t waste your time,” he snorted derisively. “Just shoot it. Put it out of its misery.”
“But, Daddy, that can’t be the only way,” I insisted. “You know she’d have had something.”
“Well, your Granny sometimes had more heart than brains,” he said. “You got that problem, too. And that’s saying something, because you have a pretty big brain, nerdy-girl.”
He threw his arm over the back of the chair and scratched his chin as he thought about it.
“You’d have to clean the wound,” he nodded to himself. “You could do that, I suppose, by calling whatever’s in the wound to you. That should pull it out of the animal. And then, simple enough, nine nights of a white candle for healing. That trick would be the calling out.”
“How would you do that?” I asked.
“I don’t mess with that devil stuff anymore, Daisy, you know that,” he said. Right then, I almost asked him about how he’d ended up with my mom, whether he’d married her out of obligation. But I love Bill and I didn’t want to know what kind of debt he was in to my dad.
“But how would you have?”
“Like attracts like,” he shrugged. “Think of all the things that could be stuck in that animal—probably metal, wood, glass, maybe stone? Just magnetize those. That’s what I’d try.”
My step-dad knew so much about old mountain magic, if you could get him to talk about it. And he only knew half of what my Granny Nickens had known. It’s sad to think about how much wisdom is just gone, lost for not seeming valuable or for being valuable only to people most of us think are worthless.
When I hugged him goodbye, I slid the other twenty dollars into his left back pocket, hoping he wouldn’t notice, and it would be there for my momma to find when she was doing laundry.
The next day I was late getting up to Fort Campbell from Nashville because I had a class to teach in the morning. I brought lunch for everyone, but when I saw what they were up to, I found I lost my appetite.
Baldwin was still tied into his chair, the bruising on his face and body still severe, but now he was covered in runes and sigils that Julie and Professor Harrison were busy carving into his body. I left the food in the observation room and came into the interrogation room. Baldwin was clearly in some pain, but I suppose, in comparison to what Azra put him through, it was probably improvement. He was answering a series of questions from the DoD contractor about what it felt like to share space with a demon and whether Baldwin felt he could learn to control it. Baldwin’s answers were “Terrible” and “No.” I wasn’t sure that kind of blunt honesty was going to be enough to convince the government that demon-infused soldiers were a bad idea.
I thought I caught a hint, just a glimpse, of my uncle looking out from Baldwin’s right eye, watching me while Baldwin looked at the DoD contractor.
“Listen,” I said, “Seven soldiers into this, it’s got to be clear that what you’re trying to do can’t be done. You can’t merge a demon and a man into the same being. And it’s also pretty obvious that this thing is eventually going to get loose and, when it does, it’s not going to be pretty.”
“It won’t get loose for many years,” Harrison said.
“I disagree,” I insisted. “I still think it’s injured, not young.”
“I have more experience in these matters,” Harrison countered.
“Julie, where did you guys find him?” I asked.
“At a Catholic Church in Crossville,” she said. “A local curandero bound him to a rock and the priest gave the rock to us.”
“Why didn’t we get called on that?” Harrison was insulted.
“I told you we needed someone Catholic on our team,” I said.
“You speak Spanish,” Harrison replied, as if the two things were interchangeable, as if my Spanish was any good.
“A skilled curandero, someone who can bind a demon to an object, could certainly injure it. Where’s the rock now?” I asked.
“In Baldwin,” Julie replied. Oh, lord. That was crude. I had assumed the soldiers had some occult training, but no, someone stuck a rock into them and the demon was forced to come along for the ride. Cheaper and faster than giving soldiers the skills they’d need to have any chance of success.
“We need to let it go,” I said. “Under safe conditions we control. If it gets loose itself, there’s a good chance it’ll hunt us down and kill us all.” Well, maybe not all of us.
“If we let it go, there’s a good chance it’ll do that anyway,” Julie said.
“We can make this work, Daisy,” Harrison insisted. “We could merge the two of them and get the contract and the funding back. I could write a tremendous article.”
“It would be classified,” the DoD contractor said.
“I just need to teach Baldwin how to harness the demon,” Professor Harrison said.
“And if you fail?” I asked. But I knew how his mind worked. He was already planning to submit a proposal to train the new recruits in basic occult theory and practice before infusing them. The training might take months, years even, and he would have a steady gig and enough material to last the rest of his career.
I had no great sympathy for my uncle, not really. Not even after fifty bucks and a shared appreciation of bluegrass music. His brother had been terrible to my mother and the whole family had been a nightmare toward me. That’s why I got into this field to begin with, to learn how to deal with them, like how it’s the most fucked-up people who are psychology majors, the people with the biggest demonic problems go into occult studies. But I couldn’t get those dead soldiers out of my head. Just one after another, after another, dying, and for what? So that our government could find out first-hand what governments and religions all throughout history have already learned?
You can’t command a demon. You can’t own it. You can’t bend it to your will. And if you try, it will destroy you and enjoy it.
So I ended up going back onto base after the Duke crew and Harrison had all gone home for the evening and setting up in the observation room, Baldwin and Azra remained tied in a chair in the interrogation room.
I set a table against the glass and placed on the table two white candles—one for Baldwin and one for my uncle.
“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me your name?” I asked. “Your true name. I know Azra isn’t it.” Demons don’t share their true names, not if they can help it.
“No,” it said, its voice so flat I couldn’t tell if it was angry or amused or curious or anything at all. So, I carved on one candle “Baldwin” and on the other candle “Tied to the Rock.” After I inscribed it, it wrinkled Baldwin’s brow and asked “Did you just name me?”
“Well, more like a nickname,” I said.
“Hmm,” It said. “I felt it. Tell me what you call me.”
“No,” I said, taking my turn at keeping my voice flat. I lit both candles. Then I pulled out the other things I’d brought—a plastic key, a small pebble, a glass, a stick, an antique silver dime—ordinary things I could get through security. And I spoke over them, reminded them that they each came from a larger whole and that they could, if circumstances were right, return again to that larger whole. And then I commanded them to call their brothers to them.
And then I waited. And slowly, the thing I was looking for emerged, a long, thin old fashioned hat pin, with a chunk of amber on the end. Baldwin coughed and coughed and finally, it drew out of his mouth, like the end of a sword-swallower’s routine. I had no doubt that the pin was made of silver and that this is what the curandero had used to incapacitate the demon.
But next came the thing I was not expecting—which may prove that I was in over my head—the stone, the very stone that bound my uncle in the soldier. Baldwin coughed and then burped and out it came, falling first on the wooden arm of the chair and then onto the floor.
I looked at it and then at Baldwin and Azra made eye-contact with me. I scrambled in from the other room while the demon and Baldwin were both rocking the chair, trying to get over so that they could at least try to wiggle to it. I’m not fast, but it was no great feat to be faster than them.
I’m sure Baldwin was thinking about getting even, thinking that, if he controlled the stone, he would control the demon. I’m sure Azra was thinking about getting free, since, if it controlled the stone, it just had to bide its time until it was strong enough to escape Baldwin, which wouldn’t be long at all now that it was rid of the hat pin. I was thinking about only how to prevent either thing until I could think clearly about what the right course of action was.
I reached the stone first, but I swear to you that I felt that demon’s hand on top of mine. The first time anyone in my father’s family had touched me.
I sat in the far corner of the interrogation room for a long time, trying to decide what to do. I couldn’t give Baldwin the stone. It’d just end up right back in the hands of the military and this nonsense would continue. If I gave the stone to the demon, it seemed to me I was all but guaranteeing he’d stick around and seek his revenge, which could also end up in a lot of dead people.
No, until I had this straightened out in my own head, I needed the status quo to continue. So, I did what seemed obvious. I kicked the two of them over and duct taped the stone to the bottom of the chair. Eventually someone would come in and set them upright and all would seem as it should.
I took the hat pin with me.
I won’t lie to you. All weekend I thought about going to get that stone and bringing it back to my apartment. I dreamed about the weight of it in my hand, the power of the thing tied to it. I imagined what I would do with the money a demon could pull out of thin air—how I would go down to my brother’s house on Sunday and at dinner announce to everyone that they were moving to better neighborhoods, better schools, how I would tell them about the college funds set up for my niece and my youngest brother and how anyone else who wanted to go would get my help.
I daydreamed about how grateful they would be, how relieved.
But I knew, even in my revelry, that eventually my mom would pull me aside and lecture me about rubbing their noses in my success. I knew she’d ask if the money were Godly or if I’d sinned to get that kind of cash.
No, the truth was that they wouldn’t take that much help. Or they would, but it would put more distance between us.
And I’ll tell you the truth, I also thought about how soft his hand had been on mine and I thought I could bring the rock home, just for an hour or two, and that would be alright. No one had to benefit but me. But I could get to know him, hear stories about my dad from their childhoods, if they had childhoods. We could be a real family for just a little bit, if I made him treat me like a legitimate part of it. Surely, there was no harm in that, right? But I stayed away.
What happened next was my fault, then, because I unwounded the demon and left him there.
I couldn’t get up to Clarksville until after class again on Monday and what I found was even worse than on Friday, though I was the only person who seemed to realize that. Baldwin was dead. His skin was kind of gray, his lips were bluish, and his mouth wouldn’t stay completely shut. And yet, Professor Harrison, the DoD contractor, Julie, and a Major we’d worked with before were sitting there talking to him like they couldn’t tell. He answered—it answered—of course, while untied and unbound, the runes and sigils they’d spent so much time carving into Baldwin’s body arranged in a slightly different manner and yet they didn’t notice.
In its hand, it held the rock.
“Oh, it took me most of the weekend to figure out how to do it,” it said, impersonating Baldwin. “But thanks to this gal here,” he motioned to me. I frowned. “I realized I just had to take control of the situation.”
“We need to leave this room right now,” I said, trying to remain calm. I rummaged in my bag for something—salt, sage, hell even basil at this point—but was coming up with henbane, rue, and nettles instead.
“It’s working,” Professor Harrison smiled. “We did what Duke could not.”
“We didn’t do anything,” I said. “Please, we need to leave now.” I was searching feverishly but I couldn’t find the goddamn hat pin. I swore I had stuck it in my bag, but it was gone. It might have conveniently rolled out of my bag in the car. A pickpocket might have gotten it at Starbucks. Who knows? I just didn’t have it any longer. The demon had influenced it away.
And so I was defenseless when he struck. He was mid-sentence, saying something about how this was truly the most interesting thing he’d been involved in since—and that’s when he stood up and ripped Baldwin right off him like an old t-shirt. Baldwin tore away and what remained was fearsome and magnificent. He was a dark, rich blue, the color of the sky right above a sunset, with long black hair and a beard. He looked something like a bull, especially with the horns and tail, but the length of his body suggested a mountain lion. His hands and his feet were like a person’s, but he had a dog’s growl.
The Major was the first to die. The demon just lifted him up and then tore him right in two. Entrails went everywhere and the floor became a slick mess. Then went the DoD contractor. The demon ripped his head off and then paused to drink the blood spurting from the stump where his neck had been. I wanted to vomit. Julie was screaming. Professor Harrison was crying.
And I admit, I didn’t try to help. Once I saw that he had dropped the stone in order to better grip his victim, my sole objective was slipping around on the floor until I had it in my hand. And then, I ran for the door. I left Harrison and Julie behind. Left them for dead. Which, by the time I’d been stopped by the MPs and returned to the room, they were. And my uncle was nowhere to be seen. Or at least, playing so. He had to be somewhere nearby. After all, I had the stone.
When they asked me what happened, I blamed bath salts, said that Duke had been working with the DoD contractor to see if bath salts might have any military applications and that they had administered them to Baldwin who, apparently, went crazy and then, somehow, tore himself asunder.
I think the level of gore prevented them from wanting to worry about whether the facts lined up. Obviously, I couldn’t have done it, and assigning blame to Baldwin, and ultimately Duke, tied up a lot of ends in a very tidy fashion. So they went with it.
As soon as they were done interviewing me, I got in my car and drove, one hand always clenching that rock, my uncle beside me in the passenger seat.
“You want to cry?” He asked me. “There’s a gas station at the next exit, if you need to stop.”
“No,” I said, though, yes, of course, I felt like I could cry for the rest of my life and it wouldn’t be enough.
“You cried a lot when you were a little girl,” He said.
“Well, I’m a grown woman now,” I said. “I have to conduct myself professionally.”
“I hear that grad students cry all the time,” he said. I didn’t respond. He studied me for a while. “You’ve changed a lot since you went away.”
“I grew up.”
“Maybe you forgot who you really are.” He said, like leaving was a kind of absent-mindedness, like, if not for my terrible memory, I would have stayed right where I was born, where everyone knew everyone, and the comfortable routines of life were set from cradle to grave. But, oops, I forgot myself, forgot who and where I came from, and somehow ended up in Nashville.
“Or maybe I couldn’t,” I said. After a bit, I changed the subject. “Was there really a curandero?”
“Did he really capture you?”
“What do you think?”
I didn’t answer him. Just my having asked the question must have told him what I thought.
It’s not that far from Nashville to Sneedville. Just four hours, if the traffic’s with you, another fifty minutes or so on top of that to get there from Clarksville. But the way from that little town to Vanderbilt will remain the farthest distance I ever travel. It was a journey that made me a stranger to my family and kept me a stranger to my colleagues and professors, who had never gone to those lengths. And driving back there with my uncle beside me, I kept hoping and fearing in equal measures that he’d say something to undo that change in me. He was quiet the rest of way, though, never taking his eyes off me.
Finally, we got to town, and then, in the dark, I made my way up Newman’s Ridge. When I got as far as a car would take me, I grabbed my flashlight from my glove box and headed up on foot. The whole way I could hear him beside me, softly breathing. Sometimes he would say my name, “Daisy Nickens,” like it felt good in his mouth. When I got as far as I could go, when I was looking down into the valley, with just a few twinkling lights to remind me that I wasn’t the last person in the world, I said “I can’t just let you go. I can’t have you coming after me or my family.”
“I am your family,” he said. “And you have my word that I won’t harm you,” he said. It said. God, you see how it got into my head? “I like you, Daisy Nickens. It makes me proud to see you doing well for yourself. I wouldn’t mess that up for you.”
“I can’t trust that,” I said. “I’m not unbinding you from this rock. I know you’ll be able to do it, soon enough. But maybe by then you’ll have forgotten about me.”
“Your dad and me, we don’t forget about you,” he said. “Out of all our kids, you’re the one who did something with yourself. You’re never not on our minds.” It’s so tempting to believe this, even now, recounting it. But a demon will always tell you what it thinks you want to hear. As sweet as it sounded, I tried to make it sour in my mind. “We grew up here,” he said. I don’t know if that was the truth. I don’t know if demons even grow up or from what. But I knew he knew this spot well.
“And I give you back to this place,” I said and I threw the stone out into the darkness. I thought I saw it arc out in the moonlight and then drop and I was almost as sure that I heard it hit far, far below. But I would never find it again, not if I searched for a million years. And so just like that, he was gone.
Later that summer, as I was settling into my new office at the University of Indiana—the person who’d had my job left to fill a spot at Duke, which was empty because that person had taken Harrison’s spot at Vanderbilt—I got a package in the mail, postmarked Sneedville. Inside was an old Jimmy Martin cassette, which I had no use for, since I didn’t have a tape player, and that silver hat pin with the amber top. I kept them both. I’d never gotten a present from that side of the family before. Well, unless you could the job itself. I try not to think too hard about that.