Everyone in town knew what Missy Mulroney was. She didn’t try to hide it. She walked around town teetering unsteadily on a pair of black patent heels, makeup smeared across her face and eyes unfocused. She was a caricature of a woman with “self-esteem issues.” She never even tried to cover up the track marks that laced the insides of her arms.
I don’t know if any of us ever knew where she came from. She just sort of showed up one day, a rare thing in our little town. The common assumption was that she’d taken up with some trucker and been dropped off in town when he’d gotten tired of her. Made as much sense as anything else. She lived and “worked” out of one of the only hotels in town, the Victorian Inn on Washington Street. Nobody quite understood why old Mrs. Jenkins let her live there, what with her reputation and all. Mrs. Jenkins was a nice old lady, and it was a shame to see her tarnished by association.
I got to know Missy pretty well over the months that she lived in our town. Or, at least, I got to know her unconscious body. I was an EMT then and got called in every time Missy managed to overdose.
It was the same thing every time, more or less. I’d walk into her open hotel room and find her sprawled out in some state of undress. I’d pull the needle from her arm, give her a shot of Naloxone, and wait for those pinpoint pupils to start widening back to life. I never knew who called about her. Probably some john who panicked and lit out as soon as he put down the phone. To their credit, none of them ever seemed to leave without calling 911 first.
Missy was something of an oddity in our town: she was the lone source of crime and degeneration in an otherwise safe and clean little city. My job was an easy one. Never did I get calls about murder or domestic disputes, and only the occasional car accident. If it weren’t for Missy and the vagrants she attracted, I might not have had a job at all. You can see, then, why we all treated her with such disdain.
It was a Friday night when I got a now-routine call about Missy. She’d overdosed, a male voice told the dispatcher. I sighed and headed toward the Victorian Inn.
I expected the normal scene: Missy draped over a piece of hotel furniture and the good Samaritan caller nowhere to be found.
Instead, I walked into the opposite. The hotel room was empty except for a rheumy-eyed junkie wearing two coats and rocking back and forth on the floor. The floral bedspread was balled-up near the foot of the bed and dark stains peppered the fading green carpet.
“We got a call about Missy,” I said, trying to get the junkie to focus on me. “Missy Mulroney. Do you know where she is?”
“She catches demons in her teeth,” the old man said, chattering the remains of his own few teeth and laughing.
I sighed. I’d have to look elsewhere for information.
I turned back to the bed, thinking I’d double-check to make sure she wasn’t passed out underneath. That’s when the old man reached out to me. He grasped my elbow with surprising strength and spun me back around. This time, his eyes were focused and intense. I know, because he was inches from my face before he spoke. I could smell the rot of infection and the sweetness of stale alcohol on his breath.
“She does us all a service, Missy does.”
I nodded and rolled my eyes. I was quite familiar with the services Missy offered.
“You’ll find her, right?” the junkie asked, a gleam hunger in his eyes. I shuddered.
“She’s a grown woman,” I said, prying my elbow from the man’s grasp. “You’re free to report her missing to the police if you want.”
The man gulped and turned away. We both knew he wouldn’t be going to the police. I’m not proud to say it, but in that moment I was glad that Missy was gone. The element she attracted had no place in a town like ours.
I didn’t say anything to the junkie when I left. There was nothing that needed saying. He’d either move on like vagrants do or die with a needle in his arm. It wasn’t that I didn’t have compassion for the old man, it was just that I’d seen this story play out too many times to count and the ending was pretty much always the same.
I assumed that ending had come for Missy.
It was old Mrs. Jenkins herself who called me. Missy had set up in the Victorian once again, with no indication of where she’d gone or why.
I wasn’t on duty, so it was strange that I would get such a call. She said that I had to come see Missy. She said that someone else needed to know.
I refused at first. I told her to call dispatch if Missy needed medical attention. I told her that I was off duty and that the last thing I wanted to do was spend my personal time thinking about Missy Mulroney.
Mrs. Jenkins insisted and I folded like the eggs in her famous meringue.
I knocked tentatively at Missy’s door when I arrived at the hotel. The mid-afternoon sun beat down on the back of my neck, making the skin there prickle with sweat. I thought about leaving when she didn’t come to the door. It was too hot and I was too irritated at the intrusion of this woman into my personal life. I couldn’t fathom why Mrs. Jenkins was so insistent that I come. What did she need me to know?
I was about to leave when I heard a crash from inside Missy’s room. Without thinking, I pounded on the door. Between the reverberations of my fist, I heard muffled screams and thuds from inside. I tried the doorknob and found it unlocked, and before I knew what I was doing, I was in Missy’s room.
An unconscious man was slumped in the corner, his hand covering a dark red stain on his stomach. I started to walk toward him when my attention was directed to Missy.
She knelt on the bed clawing at her clothing and thrashing like a fish on a line. She screamed, deep and guttural, not any sound I’d ever heard a woman make. Between screams, she clenched her teeth together and scratched at her skin, leaving marks across the areas where the clothes had already been ripped away.
I stood back. This was something I hadn’t been expecting, and I cursed myself for not telling anyone where I was. I didn’t know what drugs Missy was on, but I could see that she was beyond what I could do for her.
As suddenly as the screaming had started, it stopped. Missy stood and stretched her body to its fullest height, nearly scraping the ceiling with her fingers. Slowly at first, then more clearly, a light seemed to pulse within her. It grew brighter and brighter, turning her body into a transit map of blue veins.
Behind me the junkie woke from his stupor. I barely registered it as he pushed past me and ran out the door.
I was too transfixed by the light pouring from Missy.
Missy screamed again. It was different this time, high and bright, as if her body were being torn apart by the force of it.
Her face went slack and the rest of her body followed, crumpling in a heap onto the bed.
I cautiously approached her. Sweat beaded her nearly naked body and her pupils were pinpoints in her eyes. She looked up at me with unfocused eyes and blinked. The skin of her face was clammy and pale and it felt cold to the touch as I brushed past it to reach her neck. Her pulse raced beneath her normal, unlit skin and her mouth was smeared with red.
“This is not an overdose,” I said quietly, feeling immediately stupid.
Missy smiled, revealing bloody gums. “So nice of you to notice.”
I helped her pull her shaking body to a sitting position.
“What happened here? What did I see?”
Missy shook her head in response. “It doesn’t matter. You should go now, but I do appreciate your help.”
I pointed to her mouth. “Did you bite your tongue? Are you hurt?”
She shook her head again and stuck out her blood-slicked tongue. “I’m just fine. It’s all fine.”
I looked down at the floor, where a trail of blood drops led from where the junkie was sitting to the door.
“That man, what happened to him?”
“He’s all better now,” Missy said, her eyes rolling back into her head. “Mrs. Jenkins will be along shortly to take care of the mess. If you’ll excuse me, I’m very tired.”
I didn’t want to leave Missy there, but I couldn’t find any sign that she was in need of help. She shooed me away and I stumbled to the office of the Victorian Inn.
Mrs. Jenkins was waiting for me inside.
“So, you’ve seen it, then?” She asked.
“I don’t have a clue what I’ve seen,” I said, steadying myself against the counter.
“Sit down,” said Mrs. Jenkins, gesturing to a small doily-covered table. She turned the sign in the window to ‘Closed’ and looked back at me. “Would you like some tea?”
I shook my head mutely, staring at my hands. Mrs. Jenkins took a steaming kettle off the hotplate in the office and poured herself a cup of tea. All the while, she never said a word, leaving me to ruminate on what I had seen in the hotel room. It wasn’t natural, that much I knew. Whatever was going on with Missy, it was more than anything I had ever thought. Mrs. Jenkins took the seat across from me and sat her teacup in front of her.
“Now, you’ll have questions I’m sure,” she said.
I licked my bottom lip and opened my mouth to speak. I didn’t know where to start, so I opted for the big question first.
“What is she?”
Mrs. Jenkins laughed. “Well, she’s a young lady.”
“Yeah, but what I saw…”
Mrs. Jenkins cut me off. “Let’s think it through, hmm?”
I nodded, confused.
“You ever see any junkies around town? Any thieves? Any rapists?” Mrs. Jenkins asked. She pursed her lips over her teacup and blew, not bothering to make eye-contact with me.
“Well, not as such. It’s not a big town, though. And I’ve seen plenty in your own hotel.”
Mrs. Jenkins shot me a look that made me blush. It was unkind of me to mention the element her hotel had attracted as of late.
“What about outside of my hotel? Do you feel safe walking through the park at night?”
“I guess there’s not much crime in town, no,” I said. I was unsure where Mrs. Jenkins was going with this.
“And does that strike you as unusual?”
“Not really. It’s the way things should be.”
“The way things should be,” said Mrs. Jenkins, twisting my words back at me with a hard laugh. “I don’t think you’re following me here, so let me be more direct. Those junkies that hang out in my hotel parking lot–you ever see them again?”
I thought hard. I tried to conjure up the dirty faces of the men I had seen over the last few months. Some were distinctive, most were not. None could I remember ever having seen again.
“Well, no,” I said, “but they’re vagrants. It’s to be expected that they’d move on.”
“What if I told you that you did see them again? You know Mr. Lawrence, the new librarian?”
The question caught me off-guard. Thomas Lawrence, the straight-laced librarian who just relocated to our town could not have been a former junkie. I furrowed my brow at Mrs. Jenkins and waited for her to continue. I was tired of her games.
“And of course that sweet young man who bags groceries now at the Price Cutter–the redhead?”
“There are new people in town, true. Where are you going with this?”
“Only that those people aren’t new at all. They’ve been here a while, unnoticed and avoided by the good people like yourself. Only Missy ever cared enough to see the humanity in them.”
“Are you telling me she’s been rehabilitating them?”
Mrs. Jenkins smiled. “No, my dear. She’s been curing them. She’s been taking their demons as her own.”
“Taking their demons as her own?”
“They walk into that hotel room broken, forgotten. Missy takes of their flesh, and they walk out again whole. They leave better, you understand, and Missy leaves worse. Oh, pardon me, dear. We’ve got a guest outside.”
Mrs. Jenkins scooped up her teacup and walked toward the door, greeting the young couple there with a smile. I sat dazed at the table, wanting nothing more than to stay and ask more and more questions of Mrs. Jenkins, but I knew she wouldn’t give me anything else.
I left the Victorian Inn and walked toward downtown. It was getting dark and a chill had settled into the concrete and brick around me. Everywhere I looked, happy families were walking down the streets, carelessly chattering away about sports scores and shopping hauls. There was nothing to threaten them, nothing to take their attention away from one another. I thought about all that Mrs. Jenkins had implied, and shuddered.
I got the call the night Missy died. Why they called me and not the coroner directly, I’ll never know. There was no way anyone could have mistaken her for someone in need of medical help.
Her body was spread-eagle across the bed, which had turned red beneath her. Chunks of flesh were missing from her body at regular intervals and claw marks raked her naked torso and face. Blood spilled from her mouth like a cup overflowing with wine. I turned away from her to focus on the pattern of the carpet.
The investigators were perplexed. Ultimately they said it was the first case of autocannibalism in our state’s history. They blamed it on the PCP in Missy’s system. They didn’t know why shock didn’t stop her. They didn’t really care. As far as they were concerned, she was another drug-addled whore who just happened to go out in the most flamboyant way she could think of.
I have a theory about it.
I have a theory about the woman who caught demons in her teeth, who wrenched them free and caged them within herself. I have a theory about a woman who saw that cage crumbling and destroyed it in the only way she knew how.
There was no funeral for Missy. I was alone in paying my respects over a box of ashes in the coroner’s office.
“What happens to the ashes?” I asked the gray coroner when I was finished.
He looked at me curiously. “Nothing, for a while. If no one comes to claim them, then we’ll hold them for the minimum allowed by law. After that, we’ll toss ‘em.”
“Let me know if they stay unclaimed,” I said. “I’d like to give them a proper burial.”
And I did. It was four years later when I got the call. That time flew by in a blur of calls about homicides, overdoses and domestic disputes. It was almost overnight that our sweet, safe little city fell apart. The higher-ups and politicians blamed the opioid epidemic and alluded obliquely to “shifting demographics,” but I knew the real cause.
I had a stone prepared for Missy in the local cemetery. It was a nice one, with a weeping angel on the top. The epitaph was simple:
“Here lies Missy Mulroney, who caught demons in her teeth.”