How to Tell Whether Your Demon Baby Needs to Go to the Doctor
The thing is, he runs hot even when he’s healthy. All demon babies do. It’s a natural result of being born of the fires of hell, and you’ll find that this—the waves of heat, the face red as rising mercury—is the scariest part of fatherhood. Not just the knowledge that you’ve got a demon, which is probably what you’re struggling with the most right now, but the uncertainty of how to handle it.
If you’re anything like me, at first you won’t even know. The first couple months, it’ll feel like you’re spending all your time lifting your son’s legs and poking him with a thermometer, palm under his neck ‘cause he’s still just a formless blob who can’t even sit up on his own; for months, he’ll have this unending brimstone fever, and it won’t go down, and you’ll place an ice cube on his bare tummy and it will melt and sizzle. It’ll take a few trips to the NICU before your visit aligns with the one doctor who knows what the hell’s happening, and he’ll pull you aside to whisper, “Listen, I don’t know how to tell you this … but that fever isn’t going away.” He’ll speak softly and nervously, the doctor, and he’ll tell you to sit down, stay calm, your child is perfectly healthy, but um … here, have a peppermint wheel, take a deep breath … your baby boy is a demon.
“A demon?” you’ll ask.
“A demon,” he’ll answer, and it’ll feel like you’re on some prank TV show; you’ll look around for hidden cameras and microphones, any evidence that the doctors are really just actors and the hospital is just a set full of props. You’ll play it cool, even though you’re seething on the inside, newborn with a fever in intensive care and they want to make a joke out of it?
But no one’s laughing. Straight faces, clipboards held tight to chests, the now-clued-in nurses looking at you all pitying, except one old lady who glares with narrowed eyes like, shit, if it’s a demon-baby then you must be a demon-father. “You can’t come back here,” the doctor says eventually.
This will happen to you. Don’t think it won’t. And it isn’t a fun moment. Most folks don’t sleep too well after that, kicked out of the NICU and burdened with the knowledge that their bundle of joy is something evil. What the hell is a man supposed to do when he hears the word “demon”? Just head to Toys "R" Us and find a different brand of diaper, a “Closer to Satan” nipple for his bottles? Isn’t that simple.
Sure, there are pamphlets that the doctor will slip you before steering you toward the exit. Tips on how to reduce fever so the child doesn’t actually combust. A thick book called What to Expect From Demon Infancy to Demon Toddlerhood. “Find a new home for your cats,” the book advises. “Hide your Bible, for the baby’s own good.” “Keep the house dark, shades shut.” And the more rules you follow, the more you’ll start feeling like a creature of the night yourself, days passing without sunlight or human contact.
You’d think it would be super-obvious to be a parent to a demon-baby, right? Demons: they should be durable. Hell, they should be easily identifiable. In a perfect world, your demon-baby would look like an alligator—scaly, snarling—and you could just lock him in the basement and toss a bucket of fish guts down there once a week, and everyone could go about their lives. But my boy: he looks like any other baby. Cuter, actually. Makes the Gerber baby look like a mutant. Many demon-babies go on to become child actors, the books say. Lovable. Charismatic. Babies so cute and so full of life that you start to think, maybe this was all just some big misunderstanding, and you crack the blinds and let some sunshine into the house and then he screams in pain, tiny tears shimmering across his hot face, fists clenched and trembling. Or you flip through the channels and accidentally linger on the God channel a second too long, and he howls like you drove a stake into his heart. Your boy. Your baby boy in pain.
And it’s at that moment, as you rock him and sing to him in the dark, hoping he stops writhing, hoping he stops shaking … it’s at that moment that you know it’s true and that you let go of the old world, that you decide you’d live in a cave if that’s what it took; you’d crumble into a sun-starved Gollum if that would ease your son’s pain.
Things get better after the pediatrician hooks you up with a support group for parents with demon-children. Well. They don’t call their children “demons.” Not officially. There are euphemisms, politically correct terms. “People-first language,” they tell you. “Children with non-human attributes.” But the more you say “demon-baby,” the more you realize: it’s an honest fucking description, so why waste extra breath? You also decide: I alone can call my son “demon-baby,” but anyone else does, and I’ll fucking crack his skull open.
Anyway. What they don’t tell you—and see, this is the real problem—is how to actually determine when your demon-child needs to see a doctor. All the books, all the pamphlets, they just shrug everything off, you know? You’ll quickly start to realize that every book about raising a demon-baby is just an argument against bringing your baby to places where others might get upset by his presence. Every page a list of “don’ts.” Don’t be concerned when your baby bites you; you’re the parent, so expect to be bitten; just make sure he isn’t mingling with other children and biting them. Don’t bring your child to the pediatrician. Everything is fine. Another fever? Oh, that’s just the way demon-children are supposed to feel. Their blood can literally boil. They’re built to handle it. Calm down, new father! Your baby is grabbing at his temples, screaming in pain? That’s “horning.” Natural. Don’t worry. Other babies only have to deal with teething pains, but a demon-child’s got sharp retractable horns that…shit, you’ll learn. The point is, the books just tell you to suck it up, close the blinds and quit worrying, but it’s tough to watch, and there’s nothing you can do for your baby, nowhere to take him. Just an icy “crown of thorns,” and ineffective “Horn Gel” that, the more you buy, the more it feels like a fucking scam, an entire industry dedicated to preying off the fear of demon-parents.
You’ll have so much to get used to, so much to overcome. I almost feel bad telling you this. They say that breast-feeding is a real challenge, but most of us parents don’t know: so many mothers die in child-birth. There’s a medical term for that, too, but I don’t say it—don’t even think it. That night: it’s a memory I can’t stand. And sometimes you’ll wonder: why the fuck was she chosen to carry him? Why my wife, my son? And would my boy have a chance to not be evil if he had a mother, if he grew up in a normal family? Too often, you’ll dwell on these things. You’ll have plenty of time alone to think, after all. You’ll spend so many hours making formula, driving to shacks in the woods for obscure herbs and ground cat-heart and what-not. Making formula: that, coupled with the late nights during “horning,” and good luck getting any sleep. But that’s the upside, maybe: no sleep, so no time to dream of the old life, the family and the future you thought you’d have.
‘Cause it doesn’t end. Every week, there’ll be something new. There was a solid week when my boy wasn’t eating, wasn’t drinking, and how was I supposed to know what to do? Back and forth with the pediatrician, him eyeing me suspiciously each time like he didn’t want me bringing that thing in his office. Every night wondering whether I’d walk into the nursery the next morning and he’d be a pile of ash, self-consumed while I slept. Or worse, he’d be there, but he’d be still, cold, the entire ordeal suddenly feeling like a delusion, like I’d just made up the whole “demon-baby” thing and boarded myself up in my house and gone crazy and now my boy—my normal boy—was dead.
“The lack of appetite, it happens,” the pediatrician told me. “Someday they’ll actually be able to hibernate. For years. In caves, and underground, and … Listen. Could you just—you’re going to scare the other mothers.”
“I’m not a mother,” I said. “And I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”
But yeah. Be prepared for a week without eating, your baby pushing away the spoon, knocking the bottle from your hands. Eye of Newt splattered against your walls, fridge full with raw hamburger now going bad, and it damn-near breaks your heart to see your baby so depleted. It’s natural, I suppose. So they say. But it makes you curse God and Satan and whoever else is responsible for the pain your boy feels. If he’s destined to grow up evil, why can’t he at least have an easy infancy?
Oh, and be prepared for this, also: when people find out you’ve got a demon-baby, they treat you different. You bring your baby to your best friend’s house, and they’re like, hide the cat! And keep that kid away from the matches. And oh God, he’s crawling toward the butcher knives! Nobody worrying about the baby and whether he’ll hurt himself, of course, only their own damn kitchens and living rooms. You just want to scream: He’s a fucking baby, all right? He didn’t spill cheerios on the floor so you’d slip and break your neck. For God’s sake, he doesn’t even know he’s a demon. You’re a damned adult; you slip, and that shit’s on you, okay? Watch where you’re walking.
There’ll be nights when you sit in your house alone. And if you’re anything like me—28 years old, working my ass off, accumulating debt from all the time I took off after Sarah died, friends all disappeared and no time to even think about dating, let alone finding and convincing a woman to actually do dinner with a widower who’s got to bring along his demon-child—you’ll be sitting on your sofa with your son on Friday and Saturday nights, teaching him to crawl, clipping down finger-claws that seem always to grow back by morning. You’ll hold him in your arms while you watch Dateline or Cops or whatever other weekend-TV garbage you’d rather avoid, feeding him ice-cold formula for his hot gums, wet washcloth over his forehead, every night wondering what’s wrong with him, anything? His back arching, little fists clenching, and you wonder if the tail is coming, but you heard that it’s only a nub until they hit their teenage years. They get their wings in their 20s, but you wonder if you’ll still be in his life by then. What will you be to him?
You’ll see your wife’s eyes in his, that’s what will kill you the most. See, if you were watching a movie about a demon-baby, The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby or whatever, the eyes would be red, or black, hateful. You’d be looking at some CGI Satan-thing. But not when it’s your own boy. His eyes are Sarah’s eyes. His cheeks are hers. Washcloth on his forehead, nobody willing to come over here and spend a Friday night with you, and it’s just you and your boy and Law & Order, you saying “Maybe you can be like that Dexter character someday? A good demon. That’s an option.”
Right now you’re still in denial.
Right now you’re thinking this demon-baby thing is a joke, that the hidden cameras will reveal themselves and the fever will go away and your wife will be fine and life will return to normal. But believe me, you’ll soon be in the same position I’m in, shattered thermometer on the floor, baby in a bathtub full of ice but still burning up, lights in the house flickering, and every damned TV station suddenly playing The Exorcist or Paranormal Activity just to fucking spite you. These things are scary in a horror movie, but only because there’s always something jumping out at you. Real life is ten times scarier, see, and not just for the obvious reason that it’s real life and not a movie. It’s more than that. Here, there’s no corny bullshit. There’s no evil Gregorian-chant soundtrack. There are no cults who convene in your yard to shout “Hail Satan!” over and over, and pass around the child. (Shit, you still haven’t met one person who’s been excited about the fact your boy was born demon.) Oh, and most important: here, the demon-child doesn’t smile cruelly and knowingly for a camera, like the final scene in that Damien movie; he looks right at the camera like he can read minds, like he can hypnotize, like he’s got it all figured out and oh man, you should be fearing for your life! Come on. The only way he’ll ever read minds is if you teach him, and sorry, that isn’t something I’ve ever been able to do. In the movies, the demon is the threat. Here in real life, the threat is the world.
How to care for your demon-baby? How to know when your demon-baby needs to go to the doctor even though the doctor refuses to see us? How to know when to take him to Urgent Care, even though these morons don’t even know what the hell a demon-baby is? These are the questions the books don’t answer. These are the questions you’ll ask yourself, the questions I’m asking, because it’s 4 AM, and it’s just the two of us, and I can’t lose him. The world might tell you that it’s better off without someone like him, but you’ll understand someday. Someday he’ll be all that you’ve got, too, maybe you don’t think so, but it’s true, and at that moment you’ll know the fear of a father is directly equal to the love in his heart, and nothing built on such love can be as terrible as they want you to believe. Tell me, you’ll say. Exhausted, baby in the ice-bath, house dark, no wife to help you. Tell me what to do! And at that point, I genuinely want to believe that I’ll have the answer for you.
NATHAN HOLIC teaches writing courses at the University of Central Florida and serves as the Graphic Narrative Editor at The Florida Review. He is the author of the novel American Fraternity Man (Beating Windward Press), and the editor of the annual anthology 15 Views of Orlando (Burrow Press), a literary portrait of the city featuring short fiction from fifteen Orlando authors. His fiction has appeared in print at Iron Horse and The Apalachee Review, and online at Hobart and Barrelhouse, and has been nominated for Best of the Net. His graphic narratives—which include the serialized adaptation of Alex Kudera’s novel Fight For Your Long Day (available at Atticus Review), and “Clutter,” a story structured as a home décor catalogue (available at Nailed Magazine)—have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.