THIS TYPE OF THINKING COULD DO US IN
by Christine Barcellona
The demons were a problem.
They came to David late at night, when the neighborhood was asleep. Outside, the whisk of the automatic sprinkler was the only sound. He imagined the dark empty lawns, plastered like postage stamps across the brown plains of north Texas. He jumped when an occasional car sped past, a breaking wave on the silent shore of midnight. David knew when the demons arrived. He felt it in his tingling fingertips. The Bible grew warm between his palms. No matter how many times he looked over his shoulder, he could not see the man standing there, directing the demons, blowing them onto him like radioactive smoke rings. But still, he knew the figure was there.
Issue #72 soundtrack: Tiger In My Tank "Inverted People"
They called his name in voices that no one else heard, speaking languages that David had never learned but still understood. He felt the demons descend like an inky cloud, their claws grasping. They threatened to turn his skin inside out, to reach and scratch out the eyes of his soul.
He knew they came because he had sinned. He clutched his Bible, hugging it as a child would a teddy bear. He committed entire chapters of the Bible to memory, so he could recite them as a ward against evil. Even when his lips stilled, somewhere in the hollows of his Adam’s apple, he continued his refrain: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.”
It was a lie, of course. But he tried not to think about that.
Julie didn’t take her eyes from the translucent form in front of her. “How?”
David wrote on a slip of paper and put it in the pocket of her hoodie. “Look up this chemical online and you’ll find instructions.”
“I don’t want to make bombs,” Julie said, though she once put together an Estes rocket from a kit. “Do you make them?”
“Sometimes. I explode them at the greenbelt by the middle school.”
“Will you blow up the school?”
“I don’t think so,” David said. He turned to the blank page in front of him. He looked back at Julie’s drawing, where a skull was starting to take form. “You’re a good artist.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“This is David. From art class.”
“Meet me at the mound, will you?”
David had hung up by the time Julie tried to reply. She didn’t have a choice.
Julie was not the kind of girl who snuck out of the house. She neither drank, nor smoked, nor cursed. She said her prayers every night and went to Bible study on Tuesdays before class. She won first place at the high-school art show every year and always made the A honor roll.
She pulled on her blue jeans, laced up her sneakers, put up the hood of her jacket, and punched out the screen of her window so she could climb through. She carefully placed the frame on her bedroom carpet and slid the window shut behind her. She looked back into her own dim bedroom and felt that she could see herself sitting at her desk. An afterimage of a thousand studious nights.
The air outside was muggy, and the streetlamp cut the fog like a spotlight. Julie’s neighborhood was an empty maze. As she passed each house, she smelled the kind of laundry detergent the family used. Tide. Downy. Cheer. She smiled, glad that such clean smells existed in the grimy darkness. She imagined they were clues leading her to the mound, even though she needed no clues. Julie had known the landmark’s location since before she could spell her own name. The lights from the strip mall nearby stained the sky a dull brown. She walked past her old elementary school, where cranes and demolition devices crouched like sleeping grasshoppers, waiting for the morning to spring back into action. The district was remodeling a wing of classrooms near the library.
Dark houses reclined, Sphinxlike, guarding the neighborhood with glossy stares. Julie saw her reflections in passing windows, her body so slight that it looked like a mistake. No one could see her out in the street because she was not really there. She was in bed. She was studying at her desk. She was brushing her teeth, preparing for bed.
According to town lore, the mound had once been a place sacred to the Comanche. Any structure built there would topple. The legend was proven when everything built there was destroyed: An old schoolhouse fell in a tornado, a farmer’s shack burnt to the ground, and a barn’s foundations cracked in the summer heat. These days, people had given up trying to build on the mound. Instead, they erected a fence around it. On one side of the fence, developers planted Julie’s neighborhood of identical houses like a well-groomed garden. On the other side, they put up a Tom Thumb supermarket, a StyleAmerica hairdresser, and a Blockbuster Video.
The mound was the highest point for miles, sprouting like a zit from the flat land. Once Julie wiggled through the gap in the metal fence, she waded through the tall grass toward the figure that was silhouetted against the floodlights from the Tom Thumb parking lot. David held a small case at his side.
“There’s a drought,” Julie yelled. “You shouldn’t be shooting off bombs. It could cause a fire.” She cupped her hands around her mouth so he could hear her from a distance, but she jumped when her voice sounded too loud in the empty night. She wished she could reach out her hands and smooth out the jagged sound waves. She didn’t want to wake anyone.
“I wasn’t going to,” David said. He wore a dark T-shirt. The seam was torn under the armpit and Julie wondered if that was from wrestling practice.
“Good,” Julie said. She waited for David to explain. They had spoken in class and online over the past few weeks. David talked most of the time; Julie always preferred to listen. She was now an expert on his church, the wrestling team, and the alternative metal band Chevelle.
He didn’t say anything. He seemed to listen to the wind, but there was no wind. Julie also felt the imaginary chill; she shivered and tugged her hood closer to her cheeks.
“Did you ever use a Ouija board?” David said. He had dark hair and dark eyes to match; his pupils flashed as they turned toward her.
“No,” she said. Her mother had told her to stay away from Oujia boards. When her friends had taken one out at a sleepover the year before, she had left the room. While she waited for them to finish, she had lingered by the closed door, wondering if they could actually summon spirits. She wondered what the spirits would tell her if she could talk to them—maybe they would give her more guidance than her youth group leader or the DJ on the Christian rock station.
“Good,” David said. “You know that invites the devil in?”
Julie nodded. She slouched as she watched a police car pass a quarter mile away. Julie and David were out past the town’s curfew for minors. Until the cruiser’s taillights vanished, she felt more worried about getting in trouble with the town than running into the devil.
David had been watching too. He turned back and unzipped what Julie now realized was a Bible case. At first, Julie thought he was going to quote scripture. But as he spoke, he leafed through the pages without looking at them.
“You never do any of that occult stuff, do you?” he said. Julie shook her head. “Good. You’re a good Christian?”
“I try,” Julie said.
David paused and stared ahead of him, as if reviewing his thoughts before revealing them.
“Sometimes demons come for me,” he said. He watched Julie to see if she believed him. She didn’t move except for a fidgety hand that turned over something in her pocket. Her eyes were hidden by the shadow of her hood. Her lips moved as if she was chewing her thoughts before speaking them.
“What happens?” she said.
“It’s like a thunderstorm inside my room. But I can’t hear it or see it. I can only feel it. But the windows shake and I feel electrocuted. I can’t stay in bed. I go downstairs to the living room. I have my Bible and I hope God keeps me safe.”
“How do you know it’s not God?”
“What do you mean?”
“How do you know it’s not God visiting you?”
“Don’t you think I would know if it was God?” David said. He didn’t sound angry; he spoke as if correcting a small child who couldn’t know any better. “You know Ezekiel: ‘Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
“Sure, of course,” Julie said. “Did you call me because of the demons?”
“I was afraid they would come again.” He pressed his Bible between his palms as if he might squeeze out a morsel of comfort. He sank to the ground, dwarfed by the high, dry grass. Julie sat too.
“You’re a good listener,” David said. Julie had heard this before from people who needed something from her.
It was almost one in the morning. Julie stretched out and looked up at where the stars should have been. But the sky was light polluted, milky as a blind eye. Out of her peripheral vision, she watched David’s knotty wrestler’s knuckles shift against their sinews as he caressed the rough edge of the Bible.
Julie stood, brushed the twigs from the seat of her pants, and walked away. She slipped through the fence, leaving David alone on the mound. She went the long way home, past the two churches that stood across the street from on another, just outside her neighborhood. Creekwood Christian and Grace Baptist. She had never been inside either church, and always wondered what the difference was between them. Or how they differed from the Catholic church in the next town over, which her family attended.
She turned back to take another look of the gravestones before the bus turned a corner. “You’re superstitious. Do you believe in demons?”
“Sure,” Beth said, smoothing the collar of her ROTC uniform.
“Ever seen one?”
“Just my little brother,” said Beth.
“Funny,” Julie said. She didn’t laugh. She was thinking of the late-night phone call she had received from David the night before. His trembling voice still rang in her ears; it was a convincing performance of terror and she had believed it. She trusted that he was scared but could not stop wondering whether the demons were external or inside his own mind. She also could not decide if it made a difference either way.
“So I talked to this guy a while back,” Julie began, watching Beth’s face. “He said he could blow up the school.”
Julie thought Beth would look shocked, but she didn’t. She just shrugged. “Well, couldn’t anyone? If they had a bomb I mean. Did he say he wanted to?”
“No,” Julie said.
“So what, who doesn’t joke about blowing up the place?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“He didn’t have an actual bomb, did he?”
He’d talked about blowing up bombs plenty, in an undertone during class and on the phone. But he had never shown Julie one. “No, not that I’ve seen,” she said.
“Well, there you go then,” Beth said. She adjusted her bun. “Take a look for me, is my hair touching my collar? Don’t want to get in trouble during inspection.”
“You’re fine,” Julie said, glad not to be in ROTC. She didn’t think she would stand up to close scrutiny, especially today—a harsh look might make her shatter like a crystal glass. She longed for the dark art room, where at least she could be sure of the charcoal marks on her paper.
“Do you know David Gilroy?” Julie asked.
“Sure, he was in my bio class,” Wayne said. He flipped through a deck of cards; Julie saw they were Tarot cards. She took an unconscious step back.
“What do you think of him? Is he all right?”
“As a person? Sure. You know those wrestlers are weird folk. All those laxatives they eat to make weight really takes it outta ’em.”
Julie wrinkled her nose in disgust. “So you don’t think he’s depressed, or crazy, or anything?”
“Just a crazy Christian,” Wayne said, smirking. Julie was too distracted to notice the jab. “Want me to do a reading for you?” He fanned out his cards.
“Keep those away from me,” Julie said, flinching at the Tarot deck. She left, muttering something between good-bye and thanks.
He stared back over his shoulder at the far corner of his room. He had read that he should never engage a demon in conversation, but as he stared at the empty air, he couldn’t help it.
“Why won’t you show yourself?” he said in the direction where he knew the man stood. He could feel the other demons grow closer; their psychic screeches reached a higher pitch. David felt as if the man had raised a commanding finger, pointing straight at him.
“Go away! Leave me alone!” David said as loudly as he dared. He clutched his Bible and felt its pages bend between his arms. He had wrestled plenty of people, had lifted weights, been trained in close combat. But he could do nothing as his inner ears echoed with resounding screams that he felt sure could not be heard by someone outside his head. He wondered how Jacob could have ever won his fight with God, when he himself couldn’t dream of winning his match with the demons.
He felt his own breath grow short and ragged, as if he was being strangled slowly. His heart beat too loudly, now—its pounding was enough to block the Bible verses from his mind. He struggled to speak the words he could now barely remember, but couldn’t be sure that he had succeeded.
David was not at school yet. Julie felt nervous, even though she had just spoken to him the night before. She put her hand in her pocket and found the piece of paper David had put in her pocket more than a month before. She knew it wasn’t a chemical name for making bombs. It just said Ecclesiastes 2:11.
She unfolded the paper and smoothed it under her shaky fingers. She traced each of the letters with her fingernails. She had looked it up weeks before and knew what the verse was: “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”
No one else in class noticed the note spread in front of her on the table. Julie watched the clock and waited.
Christine Barcellona is a recent graduate of Fordham University, where she studied English and creative writing. A native of north Texas, she now lives in New York City.
Eugenia Loli is a California-based filmmaker and modern vintage collage artist. Her work has been featured in publications such as UTNE Reader, Curve Magazine, Lola Magazine, Le Mile Magazine, P-oint Magazine, Motive Magazine, and Kneon Magazine, as well as within The Age of Collage 2013 art book. View more of her work online at cargocollective.com/eugenialoli.
Tiger In My Tank is Sebastian Castillo, a musician and writer born in Caracas, Venezuela, who is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. He's published things in Metazen, shabby doll house, HTMLGiant, and elsewhere. For more, visit him on Twitter, Tumblr, and Bandcamp.