The woman crouched over the child, her body taking the brunt of the blows raining down on them. The punches and kicks came erratically, the man delivering them so inebriated he could barely stand. Still, the attack was as savage as it would have been had he been sober.
“Get off him!” the man roared where he towered above them. His spit pelted the woman’s nape, so hot she could barely distinguish it from the blood flowing out of the fresh cut on her scalp. “Let me see the ugly freak!”
That’s going to need stitches for sure.
She whimpered as the steel cap of his boot connected with her side, denting her flesh with enough force to leave an imprint. Pain exploded inside her chest. She gasped and bit her lip.
She’d suffered enough broken bones to know that he’d just shattered one of her ribs.
The boy let out a low sob. It was the first sound he’d made since her husband had flown into a rage and started beating them, his anger fueled by the cheap booze he’d been drinking all afternoon in their tiny, one-bedroom apartment. Despite the illness that had rendered his body weak, the boy clung ferociously to her with his tiny hands, his tears soaking into her grimy shirt; she had just returned from a grueling shift on the assembly line at the factory and had not had time to change out of her work clothes.
Even though her husband was making enough noise to raise the dead, the woman knew no help would come. Not a single person in their drab and lifeless, red-brick housing block would raise a finger to stop the monster who was currently striking her and her nephew.
“Mama,” the boy hiccupped softly.
The man froze for a moment. The woman waited breathlessly, wondering if the sound had somehow finally brought him to his senses.
The blow came from nowhere and sent stars flashing before her eyes. She slumped to the floor, body limp and skull ringing. The object her husband had used to strike her landed with a thump by her head.
It was her Bible. The one she read every night to the boy.
She should have known that the endearment would just infuriate her husband more. He hated that the boy called her mother. Not just because he considered the child a cripple and an embarrassment, but also because she had never been able to bear him his own child.
A hand grabbed the back of her shirt, coarse fingertips digging into the fresh bruises on her body. She was yanked off the boy and cast violently to the side. A choked grunt left her as she struck the edge of a sideboard. The meagermeagre porcelain dinner set she had received as part of her dowry rattled on the shelves inside the cabinet.
The boy curled up into a ball on the kitchen floor, his small frame dwarfed by the monster who loomed over him. The man clutched a handful of his dark hair and started dragging him across the floor.
The boy reached out to her, his crying face and desperate eyes blurring in and out of her sight.
A scream left his lips for the first time. “Mama! Mama! Help me!”
Fear gripped the woman when she saw where her husband was heading.
She rolled awkwardly onto her front and tried to push up onto her hands and knees. Her arms and legs trembled. They gave way. Once. Twice.
The woman slammed her palms weakly on the linoleum floor, her tears falling in a hot, steady flow. She sobbed and cursed the frailty of her female body and the cruel fate that had ever seen her cross paths with the monster she had married.
The roar of water reached her ears. Her heart lurched painfully in her chest.
He was going to drown the boy. Just like he had drowned the puppy the child had rescued a few weeks ago.
The face of her late sister swam before the woman’s eyes. She’d promised Magda that she would look after her son.
A loud splash came from the bathroom. The boy’s screams were abruptly cut off.
The woman pushed up once more. This time, her body obeyed her will.
The room spun dizzyingly around her as she staggered to her feet. She clutched the sideboard and closed her eyes briefly. Then she was moving, her fingers finding a carving knife in the wooden block by the sink.
Her husband had his back to her when she entered the bathroom. He was on his knees by the tiny copper tub in the corner, his arms elbow deep in the water.
The boy’s legs kicked weakly through the surface as he fought to free himself from the monstrous hold around his neck, his shape a blur.
The woman rushed across the room with an animal noise and sank the knife into the man’s back all the way to the hilt, right between his shoulder blades. The sound it made as it carved through flesh and bone made her gag.
A low grunt left the man. He grew deathly still before twisting and glaring at her, his face a vicious mask. His pupils flashed yellow for an instant.
The woman froze, terror locking her mind and limbs rigid.
Something else was looking at her out of her husband’s body. He turned back to his task as if she weren’t even there.
The woman blinked. Awareness returned. She snarled and started pummeling his body with her fists. The monster did not so much as budge.
The turbulence in the water started to abate. The boy finally became motionless at the bottom of the tub.
The woman sank to her knees and started to sob, despair a living entity that choked her very breath. “God, please help us! Help this child! He has suffered so much already!”
A low cackle reached her. It was coming from her husband. The inhuman laughter echoed around the bathroom, an evil sound that frayed her nerves and made her stomach roil.
“Your God will not help him,” he growled in a voice she did not recognize.
He let go of the dead boy and climbed to his feet before turning to face her, water dripping down his arms and a sickening smile splitting his mouth.
The woman gasped, hands moving automatically to make the sign of the cross.
The monster advanced toward her, his grin growing impossibly wide. The whites of his eyes shifted to obsidian. His hand, when he grabbed her neck, was no longer human, his fingers and nails having lengthened to razor-sharp talons that scraped across her skin.
Blood pounded thickly in the woman’s ears as she stared blindly into the face of the demon. She knew she would be dead in the next few seconds. She cast a final prayer to Heaven and closed her eyes.
Forgive me, Magda.
A voice came then. One neither she nor the creature who was slowly strangling her to death had expected.
“Let her go!”
The woman’s eyes snapped open. She gasped, the sound a wheeze.
The demon paused, his deadly grip stopping shy of crushing her windpipe. He looked over his shoulder.
The woman’s eyes widened.
The boy stood in the middle of the copper tub. Steam was curling up from his skin and hair. His wet clothes were already half dry. But it was his face and hands that captured her shocked gaze and the attention of the demon.
Fire danced on the boy’s fingertips and blazed from his eyes. The air around him trembled and shimmered, as if struck by an intense heat. A faint aura of flames flickered into life around his body as he climbed out of the tub.
Dark scorch marks stained the marble tiles under his feet as he came toward them. Some cracked, the limestone warping and bubbling as the blaze licked them.
The demon released her and turned to face the boy.
“Run!” the woman yelled, her voice hoarse.
The boy glanced at her.
The demon moved.
What happened next was something the woman never recounted to another living soul and took to her grave when she passed away years later in prison.
The demon swung lethal talons at the boy. The boy blocked the strike with one hand. Fire raced from his fingers and engulfed the demon. First the arm. Then the chest. Then the entire body of the creature was swallowed up by the flames.
As the thing that had once been her husband shrieked and dropped to the floor, skin and flesh blackening while he writhed helplessly, the woman realized that the monsters she had read about in her Bible walked this mortal realm.
A hush fell across the apartment when the demon exhaled his last breath, his corpse a dark husk that was barely recognizable where he lay curled up on the floor.
The boy blinked. The fire went out of his eyes and faded from his fingertips. He looked utterly lost and forlorn swaying where he stood, the weakness in his limbs evident once more.
The woman caught him before he collapsed to the floor.
“Mama!” The boy gazed at her beseechingly, fat tears rolling down his pale cheeks. “I didn’t mean to kill him! I didn’t!”
The woman tightened her hold on the boy. “It’s okay, Judah. It’s okay, my little kokhana.” She took a shaky breath, her mind clearer than it had been in years. “Now, here’s what we’re going to do.”
The boy protested when he heard what she said next. In the end, she made him promise on his mother’s grave that he would do as he was told.
And so, when the police finally came, the boy stayed quiet. And as she was led away in handcuffs and the neighbors gathered in the corridors of the building and mumbled about what a terrible man her husband had been and how he had deserved what had happened to him, the boy kept his word and remained silent.
“I love you, Judah,” the woman called out as she was pushed roughly into the back of a police car. “Remember that.”
“I love you, Mama,” the little boy whispered where he stood in the entrance of the housing block, a policeman holding his hand.
That was the last the woman saw of him.