Skills To Keep the Devil In His Place, by Lia Swope Mitchell

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This is like some kind of idiot savant shit, totally impossible and totally easy all at the same time. You have to hear everything else, see everything else. Know when to get distracted and where not to point your eyes. So when he’s whispering in the corners, dancing around all fiery-sparkly and smelling like Drakkar Noir, only expensive—that’s when you put on your headphones, turn up the volume and watch videos on your phone. And try not to think a single thought about the devil.

Because if you think about him, he’s got a way in. He’ll creep into your pupils, waft up your nose, croon through your earholes singing moody devil songs. From there, into your brain. I’ve seen it happen—it’s happened to me. And then everything you see starts to look like temptation. An object, something to use or destroy. Then you’re yelling at friends, telling lies, and stealing Mom’s credit card to buy $200 jeans off the internet and who even knows where all this ends.

I try to stop, purify. Return the jeans, tell Mom everything. Maybe kneel down, beg God to take those bad thoughts away—if there’s a devil, there must be a God, right? But this never works.

So it’s best not to think about the devil at all. Really effective, if you can manage it. Take Julie, the new girl in study hall: she’s deep in her Autres Mondes textbook, writing flash cards in pretty cursive. Meanwhile, the devil’s bending his blood-red torso over hers, his long lips cooing around her name: Julie Julie Julie. She doesn’t notice, doesn’t feel a thing. Not even when he’s wrapping his hairy arm around her waist, not even when he’s got his tongue stretched out to tease her ear. That’s when she sticks her hand up and says, “Miss Turner? May I be excused?”

Later, in French class, she’s got the vocab down cold. So she was really concentrating. Like he wasn’t even there.

Me, though, I can’t do it. And believe me, I’ve spent hours on my knees. But God never answers. Mom just yells.

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Okay, say you’re like me. Say you can’t ignore him. Still, you can’t tell anyone. They’ll think you’re crazy, they’ll laugh. You can’t blame them for getting defensive—nobody wants to hear they have a devil inside. So it’s on you to protect other people if you can.

For example, here I am in the library and here’s Julie with a pile of books about Africa or something. And the devil is here, too, all smooth dance moves, circling and swaying and looking for ways in. But with Julie, somehow, he can’t do it. Like there’s a barrier, a protective coating on her skin. Like that Bath Works vanilla stuff but better, less vomity-sweet.

What I want to know is where she gets that. How she does that. So I sit down all casual and say, “Hey, Julie.”

“Hey, Rachel.” Her smile opens up, all bright and hopeful. “I’m doing this geography presentation. What about you?”

“American history. I got this stupid paper.”

She asks what it’s about: women in the Civil War. Oh cool, have I seen Gone with the Wind?

And while she’s telling me how much she loves Melanie and Scarlett, there’s the devil doing Rhett Butler, his one eye heavy and knowing, that smirk around his lips. I’m trying so hard not to notice, to agree that yes, it’s all about sisterly love and why do people always focus on romance but he keeps laughing at me so finally—

“How do you do it?”

Even her little frown is perky and nice. “Do what?”

“Ignore—”

He tells me go ahead, say his name, open my mouth and let him come in.

“Rachel?” Her eyes are soft cornflower blue, sky blue, angel blue. I can’t do it, I can’t break her seal and tell her he’s there.

“Um… distractions.” I take this big accidental breath and that’s how he gets into me—like a fire down my throat, scorching my lungs, lighting through my bloodstream to my heart. Maybe a few seconds before the thudding slows. “You’re always so organized. I really, like, admire that.”

“Oh, well, it’s all about priorities—”

I’m nodding and smiling and I can’t see the devil anymore because he’s in me.

She says how children in some countries don’t even get an education. She is so grateful. She wants to give back.

“Pay it forward, right,” I say. “You’re such a fucking saint.”

She flushes all perfect pink and I want to slap her, see my fingermarks printed on her idiot cheek.

“Oh, I never meant—”

“No, really. Those kids in Africa should just worship you. I mean, maybe they’re starving or working in diamond mines or dying of Ebola or something but you, you’re studying, you’re like a martyr—”

Her eyes are Virgin Mary blue and so, so confused. I get up quick and leave, carry the devil out to my car where I sit the rest of the day, smoking cigarettes and staring at my phone, choking on the evil he’s burnt on my breath.
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It’s my own fault, that’s true, but I didn’t know. I wasn’t even afraid—we were both just waking. His face nestled on my other pillow, all scarred and twisted and red. His left eye was squinting at me, the other gone. Plucked out, maybe fighting some angel. I stared at him like he was an image on a screen, like he couldn’t touch me even at that close range. After a second, the devil smiled.

See, it’s not about meaning to, or choices. It doesn’t seem evil, there in that calm moment, the last of your dream. More like inevitable. Like fate.

But instead, this Saturday, instead I wake up to my mother’s head stuck inside my bedroom door. “Rachel? Honey?”

Another voice behind hers, higher and sweeter, offers to come back.

“No, she should get up,” Mom answers. “It’s almost noon.”

“I’m up,” I say. Wave an arm to quiet my critics, slap around for my phone. Four new messages. “Okay god, I’m up, I’m up.”

“Your friend Julie’s here,” Mom says all snappish.

Who?”

“Should I wait?” the sweet voice asks.

“No, uh… it’s okay. Come on.” I grab a hoodie off the floor and quickly assess the state of my room. No dirty dishes or anything, doesn’t look too bad. Until Julie steps in, all shiny clean, like a doll fresh from her plastic box.

“I’ll bring you girls coffee,” Mom says. “And muffins. Julie, would you like a muffin?”

“I’d love a muffin, Mrs. Meyer,” Julie answers as Mom turns. “Hi, Rachel.”

“Hey. Look, I’m sorry, I musta forgot we made plans—”

“Oh no,” she says. “We didn’t have plans. I just—well, I thought maybe I could help you.”

“Help me?” I thumb through Facebook on my phone. “Oh. That Civil War paper?”

Mom reappears with coffee and muffins, milk and sugar, the cloth napkins. She loves this shit, she’d wear a frilly apron if she had one. Julie gets a big smile but I get a frown for the phone, so I plug it into the charger.

“Thank you, Mrs. Meyer,” Julie says. “Blueberry’s my favorite.”

Poor Mom looks flustered: politeness, for once. “Well, you girls call if you need anything else.”

I dump two heaping spoonfuls of sugar into my mug, add milk. “Yeah, that paper, I haven’t even started, so I dunno—”

“Not the paper,” Julie says through muffin crumbs. She holds up a finger while she chews, takes a sip from her mug. “No, it’s—well, it’s about the devil.”

I focus on my coffee, the steamy sweetness, the spoon swirling the sugar around. My phone buzzes but I don’t even look.

“The thing is,” she says, with such sincere blue eyes, “you’re going about it all wrong.”

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She could tell, she says, from my eyes. Watching the air around her, then totally down or away. He’s been following her since, oh—almost a year ago.

“You learn to deal with it,” she says. “To keep him quiet.”

She can’t answer any questions, like why her, or why me. If there’s more than one, or how he manages to be everywhere if not, or any implications for humanity as a whole. If this is some kind of mass hallucination, like those girls way back in Salem. She doesn’t know anything like that. Just how to manage, like, the day to day.

“What’s in this closet?” she asks, polite fingers on the knob, then peeks behind the door. It’s all my outgrown and out-of-season stuff, my violin and tennis racket, old books—

“Hey, it’s Jenna Fantastic!” Julie squeals. “I watched that show every Saturday.”

“And all her friends.” Of course she watched it, we all did. “Nerds by day, superheroes by night, right?”

“Oh cool, you have the FantastiCar, too—well, maybe they can go up here?”

I let her arrange things while I peek at my phone. Last night’s message from Trina: beer+fire=yes! Three more since then: first, Luke asks do I want a ride? Second: That’s what friends are fooooor… Then a photo: Luke and Trina overexposed in headlights, shotgunning cans of Pabst. Where R U?

Finally, from Trina. Bitch yr no fun, plus three kisses. What up?

“Can I move these clothes?”

“Yeah, just a sec—”

Sry, i got aids or smpn, I text Trina, then go help Julie.

When we’re done, boxes hide a square yard of space in back under the ceiling slant. Julie steals a pillow and plumps it on the floor, takes an empty box and draws a fat red pentagram on the bottom, sets a candle in the middle. We both squeeze in, half a butt each on the pillow. The little flame rises.

“It’s easy to call him since he’s already around,” Julie says. Her white canvas sneakers glow bright and clean; her jeans have ironed-in creases down the front. Foil streaks sparkle in the Fantastics’ neon hair. “You have to watch the candle, though. You don’t wanna burn the house down—”

That’s when the devil crawls in, muscles sliding along tendons and bones, stretching under leathery skin. He curls up like a big red dog, drops his head in Julie’s lap. Her eyelashes flick downward. She sees him—I can see her seeing him. Her smile closes to a determined little pout. She lets her hand fall on his bald head, right between the horns. He leers. The points of his ears give a lewd wiggle.

“You can do your homework at the same time,” she says. “Or watch TV or something.”

“Okay, so… so you sit there and…”

The devil’s nuzzling up under her beige sweater like a hungry puppy. She pulls it up, flashing the white of her belly. Under her ribcage there’s a purple smudge like a hickey. His eye bulges as he goes in for the kiss.

“What? Oh, fuck no—”

“It doesn’t hurt, really. You get used to it. And then—”

The devil’s hand waves uncertainly, shiny-clawed, then lands on her breast. Kneads lightly. Like a kitten.

“—he’ll leave you alone a while. And maybe the people around you, too.”

In the candlelight Julie’s face is golden, peaceful. A perfect blank. From beneath her sweater, I can hear a faint rhythmic suck.

devil05She’s right, it doesn’t hurt, there’s no blood or anything. Just the circle of his lips all fever-wet, pulling on some invisible thread inside, a line that stretches from my belly through my chest, to some knot tied deep in my brain. And I sit and stare at that moist red skull, horns that crook and poke like fingers, as I let it happen.

Because I know what he does when he’s not satisfied. I’ve seen it.

Like one of the first times. Me and Trina were out smoking by the dumpsters, and there he was. I pretended not to notice, because I knew Trina didn’t. She was telling me about her English teacher, pretty hot for an old guy—like thirty? The devil’s fangs were pricking into her neck, his arms twined around hers. She didn’t see him, but I did. I saw his fingers creep into her mouth, then his whole hand, down to the wrist. Her mouth was moving like normal, her words falling out. But all garbled, nothing made sense. I stood with my cigarette burning down to my fingers, knowing I had to be crazy, as his arm slid into her throat, up to the elbow, to the shoulder, until he turned his head, gave me a wink and dove in headfirst—

I know how that sounds.

But if you’re reading this, well, maybe you’ve been there. Maybe you’ve felt your skin crawling off your bones while you try to decide whether and when to start screaming at something nobody else sees, whether to give up now and admit you’re fucking psychotic or wait and see how things play out. Maybe you know.

“What the fuck, Rach,” Trina said. She looked fine. Pretty, with little curls of hair blowing around her face. Inside her slitted eyes, I could swear I saw a flame. “Did I grow another head or what?”

“Uh, no—” I dropped my cigarette, ground it into the gravel beneath my toe. Shook another one out of my pack. “I dunno, I got distracted.”

“So what, am I, like, boring you?”

We’d had big fights before, all screaming and ugly tears. It was sort of like that, except this time we weren’t drunk—we were just skipping third period. And she was the only one screaming. About what a stupid bitch I was and how Luke only fucked me that time out of pity and if I had any self-respect at all I’d drown myself in a toilet. I was still staring when she threw down her butt and left.

I’ve known Trina forever, is the thing. My best friend since the fifth grade. So I knew Trina wouldn’t say that. I knew it wasn’t her.

“Guess I was on the rag,” she said later, like she barely remembered.

Same thing with my mom: that wink, that dive, and instead of a normal rotten teenager suddenly I was a shame, a curse, the wreck of her body and marriage and life. It happened with a couple teachers, other kids. Sometimes I was the one turned monster. Even if I knew better, it felt too good, too powerful—to see eyes go wide and cheeks go red, to say whatever shitty thing. Sometimes the truth, sometimes a lie. Whatever hurt worse.

In my lap the devil shifts, his eye flicking open. Almost done. Inside his pupil some part of me is burning.

“Why don’t you ever talk to me,” I say.

His mouth opens in a silent laugh, skeleton teeth gleaming from sharp points to the jagged gum line. His tongue waves around like a wine-stained, mesmerized snake.

I grab the candle and stumble out into my room, push the window open. The hickey on my belly itches. February air flows in, a damp chill that feels good after the devil’s sweaty skin. With a cigarette stuck between my lips I lean out into the gray light, try to find the sun. But it’s still winter. Up in the clouds there’s nothing.

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At least I knew not to talk about it, not like Julie. Granted, she had reason to think people would believe her, back in her old Catholic school. Her teachers invoked God and Satan on the regular, like the two of them were lurking around every corner, testing and tricking and watching to see how you dealt with all that temptation. So when the shadows of Julie’s vision began to redden and solidify, when the devil became a real, present, dancing and flickering thing, of course it was strange, surreal, scary—but not without precedent.

Julie hinted, she thought casually, to a couple close friends, tried to sound them out. “Do you think he could be, like, a real person? That you could see?” she asked at Sarah’s sleepover. “Like, did you ever see anything like that, maybe?” But Sarah and Joy laughed and changed the subject, so Julie let it drop.

Instead, she went to her religion teacher, Sister Marie-Marguerite from Senegal. She seemed nice, spiritual, intelligent. Like she’d know what to do. Julie told her everything.

Sister Marie-Marguerite listened, her eyes behind thick glasses getting bigger, the line between her eyebrows getting deeper. She asked some weird questions: did Julie ever get migraines? Bad headaches? No… How did she get along with her family? Her friends? Fine, except… well, some arguments and one fight, but that was the devil, it wasn’t Joy or Sarah, they didn’t mean it.

Did she ever hear anything strange? Like voices? Or maybe smells? Did she have any other hallucinations?

Hallucinations—that meant crazy. Sister Marie-Marguerite thought she was crazy. Julie clammed up and decided she’d never say another word, just put up with things as best she could. The way I did.

But it was too late. God and Satan might be ever-present but you weren’t supposed to actually see them, not ever. You definitely weren’t supposed to see the devil possessing people, that was way too weird. Sister Marie-Marguerite called Julie’s parents, who called a psychiatrist. A nice Catholic one, they said. And that was how everyone found out.

One Friday as Julie was leaving her appointment—fifty minutes of telling Dr. Kris that it was real and pills couldn’t change things that were real, could they, so why should she take pills that made her feel funny—as she stood wiping tears and blowing her nose right in front of the Sun Prairie Mental Health Clinic sign, Andrea Lindquist from Julie’s homeroom walked by, a tiny Pomeranian tottering along at her feet.

“Oh hi, Julie,” she said, her voice rich with suppressed laughter.

The devil grinned at Julie, his long fingers scratching behind Andrea’s ears. “Oh hey,” Julie faltered. “Um. Cute dog.”

Cute dog, the devil mouthed, his face twisted up to mock Julie’s: fake trembly smile, big sad eyes. Cute dog cute dog oh isn’t it cuuuuute

The Pomeranian burst into a furious yap, launching its fluffball body off the ground. Andrea caught it in her arms, where it twisted and panted with wrath. “Oh, Goofy—what’s wrong, Goofy? God, it’s like he’s possessed.”

Again that rich, knowing laugh.

Thank goodness, Julie thought, that her mom drove up right then, so Andrea only dropped her dog and strolled onward. A little joke, was all.

Then it happened. Over the weekend, on Facebook. First Sarah, then Andrea and Joy, then all the usual selfies, funny faces and fake kisses, disappeared one by one, replaced by devils. The one from Legend, the ones from Fantasia and Castlevania and Guitar Hero III, Hellboy, the rabbit from Donnie Darko. Voldemort and Meryl Streep. Julie’s newsfeed filled with red-tinted, pointy-browed sneers as they plastered her timeline with photos and videos, status updates about temperatures and torments in Hell, threats and greetings and obscene Google-translated Latin.

Just a joke.

For a second Julie watched an animated gif of Linda Blair’s head rotating over and over, that maniacal snarl with its soul stripped away. Then she hid the posts, changed her settings, unfollowed the devils—she’d follow them again later, she thought, when they turned back into friends. She shut the computer, swore she wouldn’t look at Facebook again all weekend—though of course she did. The devils were still there. It was a big stupid joke and her friends would get tired of it soon.

On Monday, Sarah and Joy were clustered, giggling with Andrea, when Shannon Kossowitz called out, “Hey Julie, how was your weekend? Make any new friends?”

They were watching later, too, between geometry and lunch, when Julie felt a small shove from behind, just enough to trip her forward. When she turned from her locker to look, another little shove came from behind her, with it a giggling voice: Sorry, the devil made me do it. She whipped around again. But then everyone started pushing her from wherever she wasn’t looking, their breathy giggles surrounding her, the devil, they said, he made me, voices swelling to laughter, unrecognizable. She slammed her locker shut and rushed to the bathroom, but from then on there were little shoves and giggles and balls of wadded paper bouncing off her head, “holy water” flung from little vials, and always, always the whispers following her: It was the devil, the devil made me do it, he made me.

It was all just a big stupid joke but it went on and on, for weeks, until one Wednesday, after a mostly uneventful morning—a few whispers and giggles, the new usual—Julie was hurrying to a safe-looking corner of the cafeteria when a jab in her crotch startled her lunch tray from her hands, her bowl of minestrone flying with a clatter and splash. “Let Jesus fuck you, let him fuck you,” said a gasping laugh, and Julie saw Tara Baker, a hefty tow-haired girl with a plastic crucifix in her hand. A nice girl, usually. But out of Tara’s pale eyes squinted points of red, a snaggle-toothed smile.

As soon as Julie opened her mouth the devil leapt. The spork in her hand twisted and snapped. She felt as though a barrier had melted; she felt as though her heart was on fire, like all this time she’d been weeping gasoline and now the flames were fed. Shades of fuschia developed across Tara’s round cheeks. Julie twirled the broken spork in her fingers and started laughing. “What an excellent day for an exorcism,” she said.

Tara began stuttering out an apology, but as soon as she opened her mouth Julie leapt.

She came back to herself with five girls scrabbling at her arms. Tara was sobbing and clutching a gouged forehead; the spork streaked blood across the white linoleum floor. Julie stopped struggling and started crying. She could barely remember the fight.

She spent her week of suspension numb, petrified, at the library. She did some research. That Saturday night after her parents had gone to bed, she locked her bedroom door, drew a pentagram on a box. Lit a candle. Waited.

The devil slid out from under her bed. His one eye glowed; his horns twisted over his pointed ears; his bald head glistened. Thick, curling fur darkened his torso. His grin was all yellow fangs and clot-colored gums.

Compared to Sarah and Joy and Andrea Lindquist? He didn’t seem that bad.

“Okay,” Julie said. “What exactly do you want?”

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It’s not our souls, it turns out. No. What he wants is the evil in people.

It has many luscious varieties, he told Julie. Many flavors. Deep ones, bright ones. Sour, acid, salty, sweet. Evil is his medium, his art. To see it, to evoke it—most of the time by slyly possessing, drawing out, and projecting what already lurks there. Unknown to his hosts. Most people do not sense his presence. Even those whose evil overruns its containment and rushes unseen through all the nerves and veins of the body, even they sometimes—often—do not feel him. Only in special cases, those who learn to see, who accept this special sight—

He doesn’t speak exactly, not with his mouth. He thinks the words into your head and they circulate there, repeating like a pop song. What Julie whispers, I think I’ve heard it before.

He’s a showoff, it’s true. Normally he operates in secret, but give him an audience and he’s a shameless ham. He’ll expose secret thoughts, unravel the bonds of restraint, unchain the evil flowing through one person to another. He’ll set off the most spectacular events, the most intimate destructions. He loves to perform, to impress. Appreciation has many forms. What humans call shame, anger, sadness, he simply considers a response. And he is addicted to the response. The way humans are addicted to food. He will do anything, just anything, to get it.

But he’s willing to do this another way. If we permit.

In my mind’s eye I can see his claws uncurl, a gentlemanly wave towards Julie’s belly.

The seat of evil in the human body, he said, is the liver. Taken directly from a young person—for a young person’s liver is fat with evil, untainted by years of experience or suffering—when offered freely, the flavor is perfect: deep yet delicate, light yet filling. It sates him utterly, for a while. He will seek nothing else.

On my belly the brown and purple ellipse of the devil’s kiss is a smeared bruise. Behind it I can feel the line itching from my liver, through my heart, to my brain.

But now when I meet Trina in the cafeteria, my smile blossoms like Julie’s does, big and open, full of affection. If only you knew, I want to say, the thing I do for you.

“Hey dopey,” Trina laughs. “Did you fall in love?”

“I wish,” I answer. Around us everyone’s milling through the food line, slapping orange pizza triangles on plastic trays. Nice kids, probably. But if the devil gets in, then who knows. Just imagine what kind of evil might out. Look at danceline Kelly, poking at her salad—imagine her terrorizing babyfat freshmen into bulimia and cutting. Or Miguel, Mr. Future MBA with Wall Street domination penciled in for 2019—picture party drugs and date rape. Or picture sweet, vegan Freya, blowing up science labs.

Shuffling along behind Trina, I look at each one and think, I’m doing this for you. And for you. And you, and you.

Look at creepy Steve with the birdskull strung around his neck and Autopsy lyrics all over his notebooks. Harmless, probably. But maybe not. Maybe the evil in Steve is Columbine bad, Sandy Hook bad. The kind that blasts in Trenchcoat-Mafia-style and splatters cheerleaders across the basketball court.

I’m doing this for all of you.

Under my ribs, the sore spot breaks open. And beneath it, the itch.

“Hey, I gotta talk to Julie Rourke,” I tell Trina. “We got this project.”

“What is it, feeding the fucking children?” Trina says, and heads over toward Luke.

I squeeze past Steve into the corner and say, “Hey, Julie Fantastic, you saving the world today?”

For a second she’s confused—we don’t really talk much at school. Then her smile engages, brightens, like the sun’s come up inside. “Just this corner,” she answers, watching me sit. “What about you, Rachel Fantastic?”

“Trying.” I take a bite of my pizza. Together we look out over all these ordinary kids in their ordinary cafeteria. Voices bounce off the linoleum, hoots and calls, shimmers of laughter.

“Well, everything affects everything, right?” Julie says. “A butterfly flaps its wings and all that.”

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So you reach a certain status quo: you’re allowing the devil to suck the evil out of your liver Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, around eight or nine p.m. while Mom’s absorbed in TV drama. I pass the time—the long furry body pacified, vibrating with strange purrs—flipping around on YouTube or scrolling through clickbait lists of animated gifs. Staring at the Fantastics lined up on their shelf.

Once upon a time Jenna Fantastic was just some normal girl—nice, kinda nerdy, way into science and math. Until she and her three best friends (Jazzi, Jerri, and Jay) stayed late in chemistry lab and messed up their special energy drink experiment and kaboom, they became the Fantastics. Now at night they cruise around dressed like pop stars, using a mixture of psychokinesis, telepathy, chemistry, and geometry to save the world and solve crimes. Plus marketing dolls, t-shirts, and a whole line of promotional crap to the 8-to-11-year-old girl demographic, but whatever.

TV evil is so much simpler, so separate from everyday life. Kidnapping and robberies and piles of stolen jewels. They never show our kind of evil, not really. Jenna Fantastic never gets blackout drunk or wakes up next to Jay all sticky and unsure. Jerri and Jazzi don’t talk shit behind her back. None of them shoplift or do drugs or puke beer in the FantastiCar.

All the ways we fuck up, the ways we fall apart. All this ordinary evil.

Julie and me, we got no demographic at all.

Julie fights evil while doing flashcards with the devil Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at exactly five p.m. She’s saving the world and getting straight As, all at the same time.

Sundays she goes to church. No devil on Sundays.

At my place, Sundays are Mom’s big cleaning day: wash the laundry! mop the floors! dust everything! Et cetera et cetera. She sticks her head in my room at eleven whether I’m awake or not, and tells me to do something about my disaster area or else. And I don’t need her coming in and “organizing” my stuff, finding cigarette butts in the windowsill or my stupid homework covered in red pen. Or the cardboard altar in my closet.

So this particular Sunday I get up, open the window to the new spring air, hug the goose bumps on my arms. My mother’s singing down in the basement, some Beatles song echoing through the vents. I feel good like I don’t usually feel on Sundays, clean like there’s no dirt in me. No hangover because I ditched Luke’s party, ignored Trina’s texts. Ignored also her posts about missing old friends, then friends who aren’t really friends, then what is wrong with people?

LOL, of course. XOXO.

What’s wrong? Nothing, really.

There’s a scratch and a heat behind me. Inside an itch like a monster mosquito bite.

Except.

The closet door hangs quiet in its frame, closed, painted butter-yellow. Mom’s still singing, folding the laundry while it’s warm. I could go in for a few minutes. I mean, it’s like totally revolting and all that—I mean, it’s not like I want to—but I’m fighting evil, right? And I’m imagining the nauseating suck of his lips, lifting my hand to the doorknob, when the doorbell rings.

Mom tromps up and says hello, her voice bright and anxious. A lower one answers, minus the fake cheer.

“Maybe you girls need some coffee?” Mom asks. “Or muffins?”

“I’m good,” Trina says, then, closer and louder: “Thanks.” When I open my door she’s at the top of the stairs, wearing Luke’s Hot Chip t-shirt, old mascara smudged around her eyes.

“The party was lame.” She flops onto my bed next to the open window. “I thought you were like dead or something. What’s up with you lately, anyway?”

“Nothing—God, hang on—”

Mom’s started singing again, so I quick-scroll through Trina’s Facebook likes to find her music. Sleater Kinney, okay. In my pause she lights a cigarette, blows a mouthful of smoke out the window.

“Are you still pissed about Luke?”

“No, god,” I snap. Why would I be mad, just because he dumped me and moons over her? “That was like forever ago.”

“You’re so lying.” She digs in her bag for her buzzing phone. “Wait up, I gotta…”

Somehow the closet door’s cracked open. Maybe I’m imagining it, maybe I feel it more than hear it: a slow, deliberate scratch on the wooden frame. In between my shoulder blades, this vibrating itch.

Not now, I think, banging the door closed. I can’t deal with you now.

“I told Luke to come up,” Trina says. “You’re not mad, right, so what do you care?”

“What? I’m like barely even dressed—”

“Oh come on.” Downstairs I hear heavy boy’s feet stomping upstairs, and there’s Luke hesitating in the doorway, his smile one-sided, half-shy. His eyes, clear amber, that know me and don’t want me.

“Hey Rach,” he says. “Everything okay?”

No, I’m not mad. I’m over it, totally. Done.

The closet door blows open untouched. On the threshold Jenna Fantastic lies face down, stick arms and legs all awkward akimbo. It’s dark as a throat inside, one red point of light shining out. A slow laugh breathes from the shadows. The itch in my liver’s swelling, I can feel it, the surface cracking like a rusty scab.

Luke’s saying something, Trina’s saying something, and what’s wrong, why am I acting so weird lately, staying home all the time, hanging out with that Jesus freak—

But I don’t care. All I can feel is this weeping infection. All I want is to get clean. And what am I doing, anyway, and where am I going, what’s in the closet, Rach, what are you—hey—wait, Rachel?

The door slams shut. In the dark there’s a howling embrace, a flavor rich and rotten flowing through my whole body. Out there let my friends fight, let the sun shine and the world fall aside, because in here, staring into the devil’s left eye, this is where I purify.

devil09

Tuesday’s one of those random spring days when everyone sort of wakes up blinking and remembers what sunshine feels like. Kids scatter across the dead brown grass, clump around picnic tables. Julie’s frowning and looking around, but the nearest ears are covered in fat headphones, the nearest eyes glued to tiny screens. Nobody hears me when I say we need to quit.

“Wait, why now?” she asks. “What happened?”

I try to tell her, but the truth is I barely remember. I know I went in the closet, leaving Trina and Luke to ask through the door what the hell I was doing, was this like symbolic or was I really hiding from them or what. I didn’t answer. Luke thought they should leave me alone if that’s what I wanted, but Trina said the whole thing was completely messed up and no way was she leaving. After fifteen minutes of debate, Trina opened the closet, found me knocked out on the floor, and screamed (she says) like a fucking banshee.

That woke me up, but of course it also freaked out my mother. So I spent the rest of the day in Urgent Care getting needlefuls of blood sucked out of my arm, peeing in a cup to prove I’m not pregnant or a junkie. “She’s little anemic, maybe,” was what the doctor decided after four hours of waiting and tests. “Eat more spinach. Get more rest.”

Julie’s shaking her head with this weird expression, like she forgot to finish smiling halfway through. “But that doesn’t make sense, it’s not a physical thing, so—”

“What if it is? Like a drug or something. Like sometimes I even want to. Do you—Julie, do you ever feel like you want to?”

She doesn’t answer. A breeze flows between us, cool on my cheeks.

“And it hurts—right where he, you know—don’t you feel that?”

One of Julie’s hands rises, asking me to wait. There’s a long silence. I want to fill it, I want to light a cigarette, I want to check my phone, see if Trina’s texted. But now Julie’s hiding her face, her forehead showing hot pink between her little hands so smooth and clean.

“Oh hey,” I say, totally awkward. “Listen. We can do this, okay? I got a plan.”

How?” Julie chokes out. “How exactly do you get rid of the devil? That’s impossible—and then won’t everything be like before, and I can’t deal with that again, I won’t—”

“We can’t go on like this, either,” I tell her. “Because whatever he’s taking? I think it’s something we need.”

She gasps a couple times, lets out a long sigh. A few deep and measured breaths. Her hands drop to clutch her belly, her mark, the kiss that makes a hole in her, keeps other evils away. Her voice comes small and mournful from her side-turned face.

“He’s my only friend,” she says.

“No.” I grab her arm to make her look, give her a shake and let go. “Hey. Julie Fantastic. No, he’s not.”

10devil

Privacy’s the main thing, and Luke owes me, so when I asked to use his place (what 4?—Satanic ritual LOL) he couldn’t say no. Too many nosy parents at me and Julie’s houses, but Luke’s basement is practically his own apartment. A kinda musty, ugly apartment with hand-me-down furniture and fake-wood-paneled walls. But private.

“What if you’re wrong?”

All week long Julie’s been asking me that. And where did I read about this, how do I know, and what if, so many what ifs I can’t possibly answer.

All I answer is I need her. She has to trust me. And anyway, I’m pretty sure the method isn’t so important. It’s the action, the intention, our willingness to go through with it. At least, that’s what I’m saying, to her and me both.

“You ready?”

We’re sitting cross-legged on the floor with our tacky cardboard altar between us. Underneath it we have a Bible (her idea) and Mom’s butcher knife (mine). On top, the candle. Julie’s eyes shine big and afraid, her lips pushed out and fretful, like she might cry. But she doesn’t say no. I flick my lighter, touch it to the wick.

The flame rises in a long yellow line, settles to a waver. Strings of Christmas lights loop around the ceiling; Twin Shadow dances across a poster on the wall. Upstairs Luke and Trina are playing video games. I can hear her loud laugh, Luke swearing, the crash of explosions and screeching tires.

Thirty seconds pass, maybe less. Maybe forever.

He’s in the shadows first, filling the corners, the cracks between wall panels. In dark hollows under the couch, in the wrinkles of Luke’s sheets. Even without a body, he’s there, lurking, observing, assessing our positions.

He has to be hungry, is the thing. He always is.

Are we assembled here to parley?

The devil’s voice grinds along the edge of my mind, through layers of distortion, like some ancient monster rising from the sea. Neither of us answer.

Girls, girls. Is this how friends act?

He can probably read our minds anyway. I try to smother the doubt, because what’s important is that me and Julie believe, and if I can do it, she can. Maybe. I think.

Are we not friends? Do we not trust each other? he whispers, still invisible but so close I can feel hot breath on my ear. My girls. I give you purity. Freedom. And in return ask only for a taste. Is that not fair?

Julie twists around, searching, then jumps a little in her skin at something I can’t feel, stares at something I can’t see.

Julie. Do you remember?

She shakes her head hard, like a little kid refusing vegetables.

I expected this from Rachel, he says. How could we trust her? She doesn’t even trust her friends.

“But that’s not true,” I exclaim. I grab Julie’s shoulder, but her eyes are focused somewhere on the wall. “You know that’s not—”

Remember, Julie. What it’s like to be alone. Remember the evil rotting inside you. Running through your veins, sweating through your skin. Remember the shame. The hate.

“Yes,” she answers. Her voice is tiny and choked; her fingers curl around her belly. I can feel it, too, the same vacuum, the itch that fills her eyes. Like a knife rusting under my ribs, a stab wound blackening with age. “I remember.”

But all may be forgiven among friends. These words aren’t for me; I have to strain to make them out. Julie. Let me forgive. And I will let you forget.

With a deep breath and a stretch, Julie pulls her t-shirt over her head. Her skin is bright as fire under her pink cotton bra, but his mark still stains her ribs.

The devil draws together into a body, solid shadows with claws and fangs spread out like snares. Julie leans back, opens her arms. And he flows between them. Her arm falls around his shoulders, her fingers in his fur. Her lips are moving, the words barely audible—our father, she’s saying. Some prayer I never knew. Then her arm shifts, tightens, locks into a bar around his neck. His face smashes sideways, his lips snarling empty and black.

She’s still strong. Still counting on me.

This is how friends act: I plunge the butcher knife into the devil’s waist, push it down hard to open a big flap there. The flesh hangs empty for a second then fills, pouring hot liquid black. Pain’s squealing through my brain, flaming through the hollows of my bones—but it’s not my pain and I need the cut wider. I need a hole. Julie’s still holding him for me, her other fist clenching a horn. I stab in again, carve out a chunk. And in the gaping void of his torso, I can feel it already, I can taste it, smell—I don’t even pause before I shove my hands inside and grab hold of his liver.

The devil’s howl is a garbled shriek of laughter inside my head.

I stretch the liver out, cut off a handful. It shivers like black Jell-O with a deep purple glow. The devil’s long teeth bare in a skull’s lost scream, his eye wide open and blazing like a spotlight.

“Julie, come on.” I shove some liver between her lips. “Here, quick—”

She tastes, swallows, makes this huge grimace through her tears. I eat a piece, too. The flavor’s like anise and molasses, mixed with the oldest, gamiest, and most congealed and burnt blood. After I swallow, this burst of pine tar and sugar. I slice off another piece, halve it and give one chunk to Julie. Close my eyes and get ready for the next bite.

The silence hits me. No pain, no scream, no words, just the quiet ticks and sighs of a hot water heater. Julie’s hurried breath, a gulp for control. Real human voices, murmuring upstairs.

“Rachel?” Julie says. We’re alone. She’s sitting up and she’s smiling, sniffling but definitely smiling. Her eyes shine at me, a red flicker deep inside.

“Yeah?”

“We should finish it.”

The liver’s still there, a messy purple-black blob staining the cardboard altar. I divide it as best I can, transfer one sloppy double handful to her. It drips and slips as she catches it, takes a big bite. Starts laughing.

“It’s so awful,” she says. “Oh my goodness, it’s so gross.”

We’re both laughing our asses off when Trina and Luke come downstairs to see what the hell’s going on, what are we doing, are we okay. They see Julie in her bra, both of us lying on the floor, our mouths and hands all smeared with black liver and blood.

We’re fine, we say, and laugh harder.

I make them both try it. I tell them what it is, but they don’t believe me. They think we’ve gone crazy, or it’s some weird joke. But I don’t care. I think it protects them anyway.

11devil

Maybe you can’t see the devil. That’s good.

But maybe someday you will. Maybe someday you’ll be surrounded, trapped, doing everything you can not to see the devil do his dance for you. Maybe he’ll drag your evil out of you, out of your friends and family, lay it out like some giant spider web to wrap you up and choke your whole life away.

Or maybe you can feel it in your liver, that hot acid itch expanding through your guts like a cancer, boiling off your good intentions.

That’s why I wrote this whole stupid thing. For people like you.

I’m not pretending we have answers. But this is what we did, Julie and me. Now we can see it, smell it, taste it: find the devil in people, feel the explosions coming, isolate the bombs. Oh, we’re vulnerable like everyone else, got our share of evil like everyone else. Maybe a little extra. But now at least we’re in control.

But if you have questions, if you want to know more, come find us. I’m usually out smoking by the dumpster during lunch and after school, and unless she’s at her church group, Julie’s usually with me. We look like the others, mostly. Like Trina and Luke, like everyone else. But you’ll recognize us. You’ll know. We’re the ones with the devil in our eyes, black holes like cigarette burns on the inside of our hearts.
end-of-story-nov

 liaLia Swope Mitchell was once a teenager who was way into creative writing and learning French. Today she is a writer, translator, editorial assistant at Univocal Publishing, and PhD candidate in French literature at the University of Minnesota. So, basically the same. She lives in Minneapolis. Find her online at liaswopemitchell.com.

Assorted Other Devils:

Blackpool, by Sarah Brooks – He has chapped lips and a grinning red slash at his throat. He topples over the wrought-iron railings of the pier and into the cold northern sea, where the autumn waves are hungry to swallow him up. He dies in the early morning, when the lights of Blackpool are not on. Nobody sees him fall.

Even in This Skin, by A.C. Wise – Mar has been binding her breasts for years by the time she starts visiting Jamie in prison. If the men stare, it’s at her ass; she can live with that. She isn’t packing today, so she doesn’t strut, just tugs her sweatshirt over her wrists before sliding into the seat opposite her brother. Today, she just wants to disappear.

States of Emergency, by Erica L. Satifka – Jack’s been driving all over Big Eye Country for weeks, warning of the coming infiltration of the Greatest Nation on Earth by the Alien Brotherhood League, but nobody listens to him. He goes to the parking lot where his truck, painted with a tableau of poked-out eyes, waits for him.

Speculative fiction for a miscreant world

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