They lived in that place for years and it, like his life, just went up in flames.
He wanted to cry. But he just stood there with an odd little smile on his face, like the kid in elementary school who got caught shooting spitballs at the teacher.
It had squealed. That hideous creature. It screamed as it burned to ash.
His wife Maria had said it was cancer. But he knew better.
It wasn’t cancer that killed her.
It was that thing, that demon. Its foreboding presence lingered, hovering over them the whole ride back from their ill-fated trip.
It was supposed to be a vacation, a nice week long excursion to the city that ended in catastrophe.
It had started as a sore on her neck. An angry, red, swollen lump just below hairline.
“Don’t scratch it. You’ll make it worse.”
They went to all sorts of shops that day. Later, he’d revisit them in his mind, retreading the places where they were last, just as he always did when he had lost something important, trying to find where she had lost her life.
He re-walked the phantom streets in his mind, night after night lying next to her ever-fading frame, trying to find the exact moment when that damned thing bit her and devoured her from the inside out like an invisible lamprey eel.
They spent her last winter putting things in order. First the furniture. Then her clothes. Then the pots and pans, the books, the cluttered pile of things that was their life together.
He couldn’t sleep.
Not with that thing hovering over her.
Maria clung to her life until her strength ran out. Until that damned thing drained her dry.
Then, it was six weeks of pure hell, of morphine drips and dirty sheets and people telling him it's OK to grieve. But he couldn’t. She was his life. And now she was gone.
Family and friends came, a blur of faces and condolences. The funeral was over all too fast.
All that was left was John. He drank the next three days straight. The love of his life, his anchor, was gone.
Devoured. Chewed up and spat out.
Three nights to the hour after she passed, It came back, for him.
He had fallen asleep on the couch in front of the fireplace, his only companions a half bottle of gin and a knitted comforter.
He woke up, unaware of ever falling asleep.
The only light came from the fading embers in the fireplace. He saw Maria standing behind the couch, her reflection on the TV screen.
“Time for bed John.”
He yawned and paused.
Her reflection wasn’t right.
She was never that tall and lanky, never that pale.
The floorboards behind him creaked and he whirled, dropping his bottle of gin on the floor.
They stood staring at one another like startled deer in headlights; him standing there, clutching Maria's knitted comforter to him like armor. It stood just feet away. Both of them waiting for the other to make the first move.
It stood on backward bending legs. It had hands with three hideous, rusted, hypodermic needle fingers. He could see its ribs and collar bone, even hip bones. A long neck craned up and back like a question mark. Bald head, milky albino pink eyes stared at him. It didn’t have a nose, just a pair of slits where it should be. Long spindly arms hung down to its feet. The needle fingers lightly scraping the wood floor as it waited for him to move.
John's heart pounded in his ears. His body felt like ice. He was right. All along. It wasn't cancer.
It was a demon.
The TV screeched to life and the picture burst into snow.
The sound made him jump.
Then it was gone, leaving no sign of its presence, as though it had never even been there.
He scratched the back of his neck, telling himself that it was just paranoia that made it itch. It had to be. The thing didn’t get close enough to touch him. It couldn’t have. He checked the back of his neck every morning after that, waiting for the red lump to rise up and signal his imminent death.
It came back three days later.
He was in the front room, tending the fire.
The back screen door whined as it opened and slammed shut.
The floorboards creaked behind him.
He tightened his grip on the heavy metal poker and spun around.
It was closer than he thought. He swung the poker and it batted it away. He tried to push past the thing but it was too fast. It grabbed him, slammed him down and pinned him to the floor.
Its needle fingers wrapped around his throat. The sharp pointed ends were about to push into the back of his neck when Maria rose up over them, wielding the fire poker like the sword of an avenging angel.
She skewered the damn thing through the head. The poker barely missed hitting him. He stared at her as she wrangled the beast away and shoved into the fireplace.
It squealed an unearthly scream as it started to burn.
“I missed you.”
“I never left,” she said and helped him up. She was cold to the touch. He could see through her, even though her hands were in his. “Hurry. You must go.”
She ushered him to the front door.
“I love you. We’ll see each other again. I promise.”
He tried to take her with him but the minute he stepped foot outside the demon sprang out of the fireplace, sending a spray of red hot embers everywhere.
“Run!” she yelled.
He backed off the porch not once taking his eyes off them. His dead wife and her demon, cancer, fought once more in the living room. The very room she had died in.
The house went up in flames as the embers devoured everything around them.
The demon tried to run after him and she tackled it and held it down.
It writhed and screeched in her arms.
Maria looked up at him and smiled the ceiling collapsed, and they disappeared in a wall of flame.
He hand went up to his lips.
Maria had saved his life.
“We’ll be together soon. I promise.”
John smiled and walked away.
Cancer had killed her.
But their love, in return, had changed it to naught but ash.