This is the third and final part of a short story about when all hell breaks loose in a nice Daytona Beach neighborhood.
By late morning, the entire front lawn was covered by an impromptu, swaying congregation. Rev. Goren alternated hymns with harangues.
The Seabreeze High School marching band had joined the festivities. The school was located only three blocks away, and the band apparently had been practicing. Their director had noticed the crowds and decided to take advantage of the audience. They were playing “When the Saints Come Marching In” with unrelenting enthusiasm as they stomped up and down Georgetown and North Peninsula Drive.
Several squads of Daytona Beach officers were there, too, to direct traffic. They also had to keep a careful eye on a small group of spike-haired men and women holding up signs in support of the Devil. They were somewhat isolated, yet undeterred. They happily chatted with the reporter and preened themselves as a television truck from Channel 2 TV hurried into the festivities. A reporter and a cameraman quickly began asking questions and filming. No one exactly knew what was going on, but no one hesitated to smile, wave and say a few words. The reporter dutifully repeated all the innuendos as if they were solid facts.
On several occasions, scuffles broke out between the more aggressive supporters of the devil and their opponents. Police subdued one teen-age devil supporter by holding him down by his pointed hair and putting on handcuffs. He was taken away in a police car while his opponents smirked nobly.
Venders had arrived to hawk miniature blue devils, apparently replica team mascots. They all had the word “Duke” splashed across their tint chests. Someone else was selling Wake Forest University insignia, the hard-faced “Demon Deacon.” DePaul was not overlooked either. Someone else was selling witch-related paraphernalia, while a third with an ecumenical bent was offering Bibles at a discount, as well as crucifixes, crèches and mezuzahs.
Inside the house, McKinley had move beyond despair to something approaching comatose. In the living room, Bradley and Mr. Scratch were finishing up a project that analyzed the ashes created by burning small samples of magazines, newsprint and IRS forms to determine chemicals being released into the air. In the family room, Gerald was setting some old Egyptian game, Mincala, that Mr. Scratch had created from cups and a few rocks. He would play with Gerald as Bradley burned the samples, then return to help with the analysis.
In the bedroom, Connie was packing.
“I’ve had it,” she announced. “It’s like being in the middle of a parade.”
“Where are you going?” McKinley asked listlessly. He felt completely helpless.
“To a motel. I’ll let you know which one,” Connie snapped, haphazardly tossing several blouses and shorts into her soft suitcase. She straightened. “Maybe.”
“Honey,” he pleaded.
“All I did was ask for quiet. That’s all. The same consideration I gave you,” Connie sputtered. “But, no, you couldn’t do that. Listen to this place. It would be quieter inside a jet engine.”
“Honey,” McKinley tried. “It’s Spring Break. The hotels are filled with wild teenagers, parties, loud music, drinking to all hours.”
“Ah,” said Connie sarcastically, “peace and quiet.”
McKinley leaned against the door. His whole world was spiraling apart, like a modest airplane that lost its rudder.
Ignoring him completely, Connie finished throwing clothing into her suitcase. She then grabbed the handle and heaved. The suitcase thudded to the floor. McKinley feebly offered a hand. His wife pretended not to see him, but struggled out the bedroom door into the hallway.
“I’m leaving,” she announced.
Gerald and Bradley were too busy to hear her, and probably couldn’t, considering the racket emanating from the front of the house. Connie grimaced and worked the suitcase through the kitchen and into the garage. McKinley watched her sadly. There was nothing to say. Besides, any of his words would have been drowned out by the outdoor commotion.
The garage door went up with a bang. Instantly, everyone stopped to stare. Mid-sermon, Rev. Goren turned, arms in the air, to look at the open garage.
“The sinner is coming!” he shouted.
The crowd roared.
Connie slowed edged her small Corolla back into the driveway. The throng parted like the Red Sea.
People peered into the window. Connie sneezed. They backed away. She inched onto the street. A policeman waved her on. In a moment, she had turned south and headed towards Plaza Road. McKinley watched her for a moment from the bedroom, then put down the blinds again.
“I won,” Gerald shouted.
“Congratulations,” Mr. Scratch said. He seemed genuinely happy.
McKinley wiped his forehead. He had such a headache.
“Dad,” Bradley said, on his way to wash his hands. “I really have a good project.” There was a faint smell of burning surrounding him.
“A great project,” Mr. Scratch said, beaming. He wandered into the hallway. “You don’t look very good,” he told McKinley. “You should have let me make that smoothie for you.”
“How long are you going to stay?” McKinley whispered.
Mr. Scratch shrugged. “This is such a nice home. The boys are great. I really don’t know,” he said. “By the way, I was thinking of fixing that leaky drain in the back bathroom. Do you have a wrench?”
McKinley shook his head. This was a nightmare, he told himself.
Gerald ran over to Mr. Scratch and took his hand. “Come on,” he said. “I have the board set up.”
“You are a great kid,” Mr. Scratch said.
McKinley watched them. His mind felt empty. An imp in the back of his mind kept reminding him that more tax returns awaited. The rest of his brain was too overwhelmed to respond.
“Is everyone gone?” Connie wanted to know. She called in the early afternoon. The ringing phone could barely be heard inside the house with the confusion continuing outside.
“Almost,” McKinley mumbled.
“Listen to me, Brian,” Connie barked in her typical commanding tone. McKinley was pleased that his wife had obviously recovered from her illness. “You get everyone out of there or I’m not coming back.”
“I’ll try,” he said.
“Try? Try? What’s the matter with you? This is our house. You’ll do a lot better than try. Send the green man home, and everything will be all right,” Connie insisted.
McKinley sighed and hung up the phone. Just send Mr. Scratch home. How? Put a stamp on him? Dig a hole?
He wandered to the back window and looked outside. Rev. Goren had started a mass cleansing ritual, sort of a communal hand-waving, Gospel-singing and prayer-chanting service that was adding to the hysteria. The garden in front of the house was a memory. The entangled yellow beach daisies had been plucked and strewn about in supplication for divine action. The butterfly garden in back had been trampled, too. The bushes that ran along the backyard had been picked apart as people passed through them without any religious qualms. The palm trees along the north side of the driveway had been denuded by eager youngsters, who clamored up them and removed branches for a better view of the house. The front lawn, which had been so lovingly cared for, now resembled a golf course sand trap. Every blade had been stomped on by hundreds of shoes.
The reporters, at least, had left. Whimple departed when her noon deadline for Monday morning’s paper approached. Television lingered another hour, because the reporter got lost on the way back to his truck. He had received an emergency call about a possible celebrity sighting and had to leave. The marching students had disbanded, although some of the youngsters had hung around and incongruously carried their instruments amid the crowd.
McKinley could see the strained expressions on the hundreds of people still filling the street. The afternoon had turned out to be very hot. Many of the neighbors had retreated to their own homes, while more-distant visitors seemed ready to pass out. The lemonade and soft drink sales were booming. Mrs. Cosgrove, indefatigable as ever, continued to blast her unrelenting and off-tune pastorals as though time and weather had no meaning.
McKinley spent a moment trying to determine who was in the throng. He went from face to face. Most were unfamiliar. Then, he froze. That face was familiar. Mr. Jenkins had joined the group. McKinley could see his best client standing to one side: tall, bald and clearly unhappy. The Wilpongs were there, too. McKinley felt faint. His whole business was going to be destroyed, right along with everything else.
He had to act, but felt completely isolated. The boys were preoccupied with Mr. Scratch, who had cleaned up the kitchen, expertly handled a few necessary home repairs that had long awaited attention and assisted both sons with pressing school assignments.
“He’s the greatest,” Gerald informed his father during one interlude.
“He said he’ll stay as long as we want him to,” Bradley announced with a grin. “He’s really cool. I think I’ll paint myself green. What do you think Jennifer would say?” He went off without waiting for an answer.
McKinley sat down on the couch and tried to think. What was he going to do? Shoot the Devil? He doubted that would work, even if he owned a gun. Prayers were clearly ineffective. The baseball bat was a possibility, but McKinley knew fully well he lacked both the strength and determination to batter anything into submission. He had rarely hit a baseball as a kid, preferring the classroom to the athletic field. Even now, hefting the bat last night seemed to have strained his right bicep.
Unless Mr. Scratch could be overwhelmed with numbers, violence was out of the question. But, something had to be done. McKinley wanted his life back to normal: the boys bickering, his wife complaining and firing orders, and the gardens restored. He wanted to slip into his office and work in mindless silence uninterrupted by the intonations of hundreds of church-going fanatics and without fear that his clients would end their relationships with him. He wanted the devil worshippers gone, and the makeshift plaque designating the house as an official portal to Hell, removed. Mostly, he wanted quiet.
He simply didn’t know how to achieve it.
McKinley ran through the events of the day. He grabbed Bradley and finally learned how Mr. Scratch came into existence. That gave him an idea. He just needed help.
In the mid-afternoon, as Mr. Scratch was setting up the Scrabble game board, McKinley pulled his sons aside. He looked at them slowly, first Bradley, then Gerald.
“I know you like Mr. Scratch,” he said. They nodded happily. “But, he’s got to go.”
“Why?” Gerald said.
“Bradley, do you think Jennifer will ever be allowed back in this house if Mr. Scratch is here?” McKinley asked.
Bradley grimaced. “No,” he admitted. “But I doubt her mother will ever let her around here again anyway.”
“And, Gerald,” McKinley turned his attention to his younger son. “Do you think Mom will come home if the party continues outside?” Gerald didn’t argue. “You do want to see Mom again, don’t you?” Gerald thought for a moment and then managed a sad nod.
“That’s what it comes down to,” McKinley continued in a low voice, checking over his shoulder in case Mr. Scratch was listening. “Mom and Jennifer or Mr. Scratch.”
“Can’t we just ask him?” Gerald wanted to know. He was pleading. “That way, he can come back.”
“I did ask him,” McKinley reported. “He said he wants to stay; he likes it here.”
“Oh.” Gerald looked glum. “He really is nice.”
“So is pizza,” McKinley noted quickly, “but too much will make you sick.”
“Anyone want some lunch?” Mr. Scratch called. “How about some grilled chicken sandwiches?”
“Can we ask him to leave after we eat?” Bradley asked.
McKinley shook his head. “The longer we wait, the harder it will be. Look at that crowd outside. You’ll never get to school on Monday.”
“Really?” Bradley exclaimed, his eyes shining.
“You won’t see your friends either,” McKinley amended quickly.
Bradley weighed that thought. “I don’t want to hurt him,” he finally said. “He’s so nice.”
McKinley pulled them tighter. “I know what we can do,” he said. He held up the box of Devil’s Food. “We’re going to put the genie back in the bottle.”
“It’s a box,” Gerald noted.
“You’re an idiot,” Bradley told him.
“I am not,” Gerald protested. “Dad!.”
McKinley shook his head. “Later,” he said, starting to walk toward the living room.
The two boys pushed each other, but joined their father. They approached Mr. Scratch as a unit, side by side. McKinley wanted to be sure his sons couldn’t back out. They were red-faced and breathing hard.
Mr. Scratch was sitting at the dining room table, his back to them. He was checking the Scrabble tiles. Sandwiches were piled on the table next to the board.
“Are you ready, gentlemen?” Mr. Scratch asked casually, swiveling around to face them. “I feel hot.”
“In a minute,” McKinley said.
“Oh, are you playing, too?” Mr. Scratch said.
“Not anymore,” McKinley said coldly, putting the box down on the floor. He then plugged in the air dryer and held it up, like a gun, pointed at Mr. Scratch. He then turned it on. Hot air began to pour into the room.
“Grab him, boys,” McKinley shouted. His sons sprang forward.
“Oh, dear,” Mr. Scratch said, but didn’t resist as Gerald and Bradley pinioned each arm. They seemed so small next to him.
McKinley aimed the hair dryer inches from Mr. Scratch’s face. The devil was placid, then, slowly, began to dissolve. The green color flaked off, then turn gray as it drifted to the floor. Slowly, the entire body followed. The arms simply melted, joining with the torso and legs to form a large ash-like heap on the wood floor beneath the dining room table.
“The box, “ McKinley shouted excitedly.
Bradley retrieved it and looked at the pile. “I don’t want to touch it,” he shuddered.
A pan and broom took care of that problem. McKinley did the honors. Gerald looked like he was going to cry.
McKinley sealed the box with tape. He wondered what to do with it. Throw it in the ocean? No, he decided, too much water. A tall devil who emerged from the bathtub would likely be dwarfed by a creature born in a much larger, wetter container.
Carrying the box carefully, he went outside.
“Go home,” he called. “There’s no devil here.”
The crowd stood still. Eyes stared at him. McKinley felt their gaze, their hatred. He did not flinch. “Go home,” he repeated firmly, waving the box like an amulet. “There isn’t a devil. Never was a devil.”
Mrs. Cosgrove glared at him. “I saw him,” she said firmly.
“Just a mirage. It’s awfully hot in Florida,” McKinley told her. His voice quavered as he fought nervousness, but he stayed loud. “Anyone else see the devil?” he asked pointedly. ‘Anyone?”
People looked sheepishly at her.
“Go home,” McKinley said, “before I sue you all for damaging my property.”
That threat caused immediate consternation and a mass exodus.
“Don’t forget to contribute to our building fund,” Rev. Goren shouted, holding up a white box. He didn’t attract much interest before scurrying into his Cadillac and having his chauffeur whisk him away.
McKinley watched the crowd dissipate, then opened the garage and got into his car. He put the box next to him. It seemed so strange. He backed out through an empty driveway and turned to go to Bellair Plaza via an empty street.
Discretely, he put the box of Devil’s Food back on the shelf.
He returned home in time to see his wife drive in, hear Bradley yelling at Gerald, see Jennifer coming down the street toward the house and realize that there were still tax returns to do.
It was, he decided, simply a daydream brought on by tax-day stress.
Ryan Destino looked at the box of Devil’s Food on the shelf. What a great gag gift for his brother in Iowa. As a minister, John would really get a laugh over it. Ryan picked up the box, noting the tape across the top. Even better, he thought, and cheerfully added it to his cart.