By turns eerie and poignant, “Under the Porch” is an oddly sentimental fable of eight young lives marked by the briefest encounter with strangeness and terror. Yet when seen over the span of decades, the supernatural horror at the heart of Julia Patt’s fine telling ends up being almost beside the point. — Editor.
Old woman Sawyer at the end of the cul-de-sac kept a demon under her porch, the big kids said. She’d let you have a look at it for a dollar.
Third grade, eight of us saved a day’s lunch money and went.
She was the oldest person we’d ever seen, her face a territory of dry sunk riverbeds. But while her skin had long ago gone a gray-khaki color, her lips were always pink and wet and uncomfortable to look at. Usually we skirted her property — she’d chased Billy Corvin away with a hammer once — but that October day we went up and knocked on her door.
We followed her around the porch, which was closed up with a little white-latticed gate at the far end. Old woman Sawyer looked at us with her penny-colored eyes; if you got close, she smelled of cough drops and rotting flowers. The door whined when she opened it.
We all stooped to peek in. It was hard to see at first. We squinted, tilted our heads. Connie Lemont spoke too soon; she said, You lying old witch, ain’t no demon in there. The woman hawked and spat at Connie’s feet and laid a curse on her.
(Connie died years later, a little after junior prom, when she swerved into a guardrail on Route 29. Some said she’d been drinking; others said it was that shitty old Pinto her parents gave her to drive. But the seven of us — who’d been with her that October afternoon — we knew better.)
Just after Connie spoke, we saw a shifting in the dark under the porch. It was a leathery little thing, old woman Sawyer’s demon, the color of manila envelopes and the size of a baby, its shriveled face like the underside of a mushroom. It shuffled forward in the dark, dragged itself on hooked claws.
The demon pulled itself toward the sunlight, toward us, and as it got closer, we could see its eyes, a pale, beautiful blue — opaque like sea glass or river stones. It snuffled, sniffed for us. We shivered at the crumpled lunch bag sound of its breathing, flinched as it swung its head back and forth, listening for us.
It’s blind, Tommy Leeds whispered and we all kicked him because the demon, it heard, and it shuffled fast toward us, rattled the dead leaves under the porch. It came so quick, Tommy fell back on his ass. We all jumped away.
The demon stuck its piggish snout out from under the porch and made a dry hungry sound, a kind of sucking. Its forked tongue dashed out of its mouth, as if tasting the place where we had been. It reached out with one hooked wing and then the old woman Sawyer clicked the little latticed door shut.
The old woman glared at us. Go on home now, she said. Turned away, muttered and grumbled and creaked up those porch steps and into her empty old house.
Walking home, Lizzy Moors asked, What does it eat, then? And we shushed her but the question bothered us and we all lay awake thinking about it that night and the next and the next. Sometimes one of us would look like maybe they wanted to talk about it, but we’d turn our backs when it came up.
When we were seniors in high school and our little brothers and sisters had gone to see the demon and run home like we had, old woman Sawyer died. Her kids sold the house to a developer who wanted to split the property into smaller lots. So they tore it down. The whole thing collapsed in a pile of shingles and leaf dust.
That night we went parking up on Algiery Lane and kissed and held each other’s hands and tugged each other close in our safe, locked-up cars. That was the night Tommy Leeds got Lizzy Moors pregnant, and none of us, none of us dreamed about a sick sucking sound or the rattling of flightless wings in the leaves. Or if we did, we never admitted to it.
We did go to the house the next day, went walking past it before school to have a look. Not just us from that third grade class either. Lots of kids, all ages, some adults even. But there wasn’t anything in the dirt or in the leaves. No furrows, as we’d imagined, leading away from the old property. The tiny body dragging, dragging.
After that the rabbits and chipmunks and stray cats began to come back. We got older, moved away from the neighborhood, went off to college and cul-de-sacs of our own. Never thought about demons closed in under porches, didn’t tell our friends over drinks or our lovers across the pillows or our children when we tucked them in.
But sometimes we would pause late at night, listening for the sound of it breathing, not sure whether we heard it or only remembered. Sometimes we dreamed about Connie Lemont and we picked up the phone, thought of calling someone who might understand. We always went back to bed without dialing.
The summer of the twenty-year reunion we stood around talking awkwardly about divorces and foreclosures and failed business ventures. Were shocked at how we looked so much alike: our faces wrinkled prematurely, the skin loose and gray, our eyes blank and pale.
The group of us left, our significant others abandoned at tables and buffet lines and punch bowls, our hands clasped together.
We went to what had been old woman Sawyer’s place. The little lines of plastic houses looked weathered and stained, windows dark, lawns overgrown, for-sale signs leaning crooked at the curb. We stood in the street over the gutter. We waited for the demon to come back, waited to see its eyes catch the moonlight, waited to hear it breathe.
It would know us, we were sure. Beneath the suits and the heels and the years layered like sediment, it would recognize us by taste and smell and sound, would know us for what we were. Seven children peering into the dark.
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