I have a demon inside me.
It knows all my secrets, all my weaknesses. On a good day, when the sun is shining, the offering plates are filled with honey and I have enough candles for my circle to hold, the angels keep it at bay. Not that I can summon anything higher than a member of the lowest choir, but it’s enough. I have my summoning stone, and I have the four incantations I had the chance to memorize before I got kicked out of Holyfields.
Meluchiel. Hamamash. Sephos. Quadoch. Pale glimmers that are easier to see out of the corner of your eye. A flicker of a shining robe, a faint murmur of celestial bells. Nothing like the principalities and thrones you’ll see spreading their wings and dripping with heavenly flame, the sound of trumpets blaring as they brandish their swords and stalk along the upper-level hallways of Holyfields or the wealthiest streets of New Luxor. No, nothing that impressive. But enough … on a good day. Enough to keep the demon at bay, enough to keep the living shadows that lurk in the corners of the city at bay, enough to keep the Croppers at bay.
On a bad day, it’s different.
Son hates the bad days, and I don’t blame him. I hate them, too; maybe even more on his behalf. Son’s a street kid, not my actual son—it’s what the Croppers call him, and he can’t talk or write to say otherwise. He found me that first night after I got kicked out, wandering along the bank of the river, shadows licking their chops under the trees and a fading Sephos trailing me like a reluctant dog. Son took me by the hand and led me into the underpass of a nearby bridge. At first, I didn’t want to go, since it’s exactly the sort of place shadows would gather, but he tugged and tugged, making gestures that said, Come on, it’s all right, it will be safer. So, I went with him, Sephos drifting mournfully behind me.
Beneath the bridge, Sephos brightened. Son pointed, and I saw an Enochian ward spell spray-painted on the slanted cement wall of the underpass. I don’t know who put it there, and Son couldn’t tell me if he did, but he just shook his head when I asked. Some Holyfields students exploring the park on a dare? Some unlucky homeless summoner before me? Whoever it was, they got farther than I ever did at the academy. I can just barely translate the spell, there’s no way I could execute it with the proper degree of focus and intention.
It doesn’t matter. It’s there and it helps make the underpass a stronger locus for summoning, a place the living shadows are afraid to enter. A place where strangers can take shelter. A place where Son—who couldn’t have been more than nine—taught me how to live, homeless and broke, in the city in exchange for the protection the feeble angels I was able to summon provided.
On the good days.
Though it’s not like the good days are great. It’s funny what a person can get used to. Scrubbing down twice a week in the sinks in public toilets, so thick with germs they make your skin crawl. Eating food out of a garbage bin. Dodging hungry shadows and Croppers.
You know what else is funny, is how almost no one at Holyfields ever talks about them. Well, I was only there for three months, but you’d think the administration would warn new students, oh, don’t venture out into the city without protection or the shadows might swallow you whole. And maybe, if for some reason you are stupid enough to go exploring without a celestial guardian in attendance, cross the street and run like hell if you see a Cropper, because they will feed you to the shadows. That’s the bargain they’ve made.
But no, we were just told everything we needed was there on the campus of the academy, and there was no reason to leave.
So I didn’t, until I did.
I was a good student, which is to say, I was an obedient student. I’m not one of those cautionary tales about a talented student whose ambition led her astray. Are you kidding? I was a small-town girl from West Kehokia, and being recruited by Holyfields was the best thing that had ever happened to me in the whole of my pathetic little life. I wouldn’t even have sat for the exam if I wasn’t trying to avoid a boy. Everyone knows the exams are just for show, that it’s only the great-great-great-grandchildren of the Latter Day Illuminati that ever manifest the gift, and 99% of their descendants are clustered on the east coast. Sending examiners into the sticks to test the plebes from flyover country is nothing but a publicity stunt. Everyone except a few sad-eyed Goth girls secretly hoping there was magic in their bones knew it.
Brian … Brian Drake. That was the boy’s name, not the examiner’s. I don’t remember the examiner’s name. That’s funny, too, right? After all, he had a huge impact on my life, and the boy … God, I barely even remember.
No, that’s a lie.
The demon inside me remembers.
The cells of my flesh expand and my skin gets tighter and tighter when the demon laughs, deep and guttural inside me, ha-ha-ha! You remember, it whispers. You remember everything. Pathetic little slut. Knob-gobbler.
Son steals candles for me. It doesn’t matter what kind. Tapers, tea lights, votives … anything that can hold a flame. He steals plastic squeeze bottles of honey, empty pie tins. Trying to give me the tools I need to keep us safe. He grins and gives me a thumbs-up whenever he delivers a purloined stash. There’s a gap on the right side of his grin where he’s missing a couple of molars. Baby teeth, maybe? I don’t know if that’s normal for a kid his age.
My mom was missing a couple of molars, too. I remember blood dripping from my stepdad’s knuckles.
It takes a lot to feed and nurture a demon. I guess I was lucky that my stepdad mostly ignored me. The worst I ever had from him was impatient swats. But maybe I wouldn’t have been so hungry for attention if he hadn’t done his best to pretend I didn’t exist. Especially attention from boys when I was too young and stupid to understand what I was doing.
Brian Drake, he just wanted what he’d heard I’d been giving away for years. If he’d been a senior, or even a junior … I don’t know. It might have been easier to give in, just to make it stop. But no, he was a sophomore. He and his juvenile posse used to trail me home after school, jeering obscene requests.
One day I figured his posse would egg each other on hard enough that they’d take it a step farther. Corner me. Get me alone.
It’s the sheer weight of implied menace that gets you. And part of it’s your fault. You’re always going to be the fourteen-year-old girl who got falling-down drunk at her first kegger and gave Sawyer McKinley a blow job with other kids watching, other boys cheering her on and thinking about who’s next, other girls screeching with disgust.
You didn’t know what you were doing. You were too drunk to know you were the butt of a joke. Too drunk to know this was forever, that from that moment forward you were always going to be that girl.
But you did it.
Fourteen years old and never even kissed a boy. A game of Truth or Dare. They egged you on, made it seem like it would make you cool, make you a wild child, make you a party girl, make you popular.
It’s not like I knew what to do. But I pretended I did. Sawyer helped, I guess. I remember dirt and pine mast under my knees, bonfire flames streaking the darkness. Kids laughing and clapping and screaming, drinking cheap beer out of Solo cups. He wrapped my hand low around the shaft of his dick, showed me how to slide it up and down, the skin moving over the hard flesh underneath. He pushed my head down. Whatever else led up to that moment, I feel like that’s when it happened. When something in my soul divided; mitosis, just like we were studying in ninth grade biology.
I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the thick, hot, salty-slick throbbing of it, the way it nudged at the back of my throat and made me gag, the way the pressure of his hand kept urging me to take it deeper than I wanted or could, holding my head in place when his cum spurted.
But I was young and dumb and drunk enough to think I liked the adulation, so at fourteen years of age, I sucked Sawyer McKinley’s dick at a party.
After that, I was two girls.
Suzanne, the solid B+ student from a troubled background who worked hard in class, kept her head down—no pun intended—and tried not to get noticed.
Suzie Q, the girl who sucks dicks.
Her, you, I.
Sometimes I don’t even know how to talk about me.
After that … okay, it wasn’t just the once and it wasn’t just Sawyer. There were other parties. There were other boys. After a while, it wasn’t just parties, either. Once you fall down a hole, it’s hard to climb out of it. So I drank, like somehow that made it okay. Boys would bribe me with booze when they could get it. Sloe gin, Southern Comfort, root beer schnapps. Anything sickly sweet. In the parking lot behind the 7-11 after school, asphalt and trampled-flat chewing gum under my knees. On the playground at dusk, gravel under my knees, some boy’s fist in my hair and his dick in my mouth, my head bobbing up and down like some stupid puppet. Afterward I’d try not to puke, so I didn’t sober up too quickly and think about what I’d done.
You remember everything, you slut, you dumb slut, dumb slut, dumb slut, you DUMB LITTLE COCK-SUCKING SLUT!
There’s only one way to get relief on the bad days, when the candles gutter and the offering plates are empty, the pallid angels slip their bonds and flee and the demon swells inside me, its insistent voice rising and rising to batter the inside of my skull. When I can’t stand it anymore, I fumble for the pocket knife hidden in the bottom of my knapsack, set the point against my skin and cut.
Oh, and it is a relief.
Blade parts skin and cleaves flesh; my blood sizzles and steams in the cut, red mist filling the air. The pressure eases. My body returns to my ownership. I make straight lines, curved lines. I etch runes into flesh until the infernal voice fades.
Son cries noiselessly on the bad days, a mixture of tears and snot streaming down his face, but he doesn’t abandon me. He squirts honey into the empty pie tins. He pushes a box of matches into my hands, he points urgently to the candles he’s stolen for me, arranging them in a circle.
I put down the pen knife and strike a match.
I light the candles.
I fish out my summoning stone and conjure a couple of the lesser angels at my disposal.
Hamamach and Meluchiel shake their heads at my condition, and tsk-tsking. Concerned, they stoop beside me and press flaming daggers—little daggers befitting their stature, not much bigger than my pen knife—against my open wounds.
I sizzle, contained.
Son’s gaze is fearful, wary and hopeful. Despite the missing teeth, he’s a pretty boy beneath the grime. I take a deep breath and finger my pockets. Sometimes strangers who take shelter under the bridge give me a few bucks in thanks for the protection. If I’m lucky there are some limp bills and greasy coins in there. Today there are.
“Do you want ice cream?” I ask him.
He blows away a snot-bubble, sniffs, wipes his nose with one hand, and nods. Despondent angels trail us into the park, where I buy Son and me a couple of Nutty Buddies from an ice cream cart, doing my best to ignore the writhing shadows.
There were twelve of us who sat for the exam, and I’m pretty sure at least eight were only there because they had detention. I was there because at the end of sixth period, Brian Drake passed me in the hallway, opened his jacket to flash me a glimpse of a plastic pint of Fireball, and waggled his eyebrows, mouthing my name, mouthing Suzie Q, the nickname I didn’t like to think about.
By that time, I was a senior. Brian Drake was a sophomore. Maybe it shouldn’t have mattered, but it did to me. We were all young and dumb. But there were rules. Standards. Blowing a sophomore would have been a step too far. If I did it, I would have become fair game for anyone. For anything. It would have shattered the rules.
So I sat for the exam just to avoid him, him and his posse. The examiner couldn’t have been more bored. He placed the summoning stone in one outstretched hand after another, going through the motions. It’s the same stone I have today, a smooth egg-shaped piece of white quartz. It felt warm in my palm from the hands that had held it before me. When the examiner reached out impatiently to take it back and move onto the next kid, I shook my head and closed my fingers around it.
It grew warmer, and I felt a faint buzzing sensation, as though the stone were coming to life.
It began to emanate a faint, but distinct glow.
I stared down at my hand, at the ruddy light shining between my closed fingers. The examiner stared at me in disbelief.
“Can you read this?” He shoved a piece of paper in front of my face. It was the first time I’d seen the Enochian alphabet. Unfamiliar symbols crawled on the page, resolving into syllables. My eyes didn’t recognize them, but somehow my tongue did, tasting the lines. One by one, I sounded them out.
It changed my life.
The examiner offered me a scholarship to Holyfields on the spot, and I took it, waiting out the long weeks until graduation, waiting out the hot, squalid days of summer, working at Waffle House for crap wages and shitty tips. I didn’t go to any parties, not even my own class’s graduation party. I stayed sober. I wasn’t the girl who sucked dicks anymore. I was the girl who was going to Holyfields.
At the end of the summer I counted up my tips, stole a few extra bucks from my stepdad’s wallet on principle, and took a Greyhound bus to New Luxor; ready to start over, ready to leave West Kehokia and Suzie Q behind forever.
I didn’t know I was taking my own personal demon with me, lurking inside my flesh. I should have, I guess. It’s not like I didn’t hear its voice in my head. I just didn’t expect it to keep growing.
That was then.
In the park, a Cropper whistles, a sharp, shrill sound. Others gather. The ice cream cart vendor packs up his wares and hustles away. Families shrink and flee. The ominous trees reach toward the sky, growing taller. Shadows reach across the grass, creeping like fingers.
“Hey, Son!” the leader of the Croppers calls in a casual tone, beckoning. “Come join us, won’t you? Leave that summoner bitch behind!”
Son shakes his head violently, taking shelter behind me.
There is a crash and a scream and a slurping sound; out of the corner of my eye, I see the shadows claim a victim. Beside an overturned baby carriage, a young mother falls to her knees and weeps.
The leader of the Croppers snaps his fingers. “Son?”
I hold my summoning stone aloft, light streaming between my fingers. Sighing reluctantly, Hamamach and Meluchiel flank us, jabbing in his general direction with their little flaming daggers. Laughing and sneering, the Croppers retreat.
It’s enough, at least for today.
Under the bridge, Son and I huddle together for comfort in the cardboard fortress we built together, taking solace in the unbroken circle of candles. My new scars are painful and itchy. My hands are sticky with the vanilla-ice-cream residue of Nutty Buddies. Inside me, the demon grumbles.
I bought into the myth of Holyfields hook, line and sinker. I got off the bus and walked into another world. Streets so old they were paved with red bricks, you’d expect to see horse-drawn carriages clop-clopping down the road. Cobblestone alleys. That’s all of New Luxor, really. Old and historic, but not in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. Like real people really live there, and yeah, the ones in the fancy houses trace their ancestry back to the first pilgrims of the Latter Day Illuminati, but maybe some of them were just ordinary sailors who decided they were ready to give up seafaring and drop anchor on land.
I didn’t see any shadows or Croppers on my way to the Holyfields campus. Maybe I was just lucky.
What I remember most of all is a mingled sense of awe and acceptance. Awe; awe was a given. There were the principalities and thrones and their flaming swords radiating glory, the venerable ivy-covered buildings, the green, green grass of the Grove and the elegant arch of the Proscenium at its heart, where the upperclassmen struggled to complete their senior projects and achieve manifestation. Acceptance … My roommate’s name was Rebecca Latham, and like every other student, she was everything I wasn’t. Old money, old blood, probably cut her milk teeth on someone’s cast-off summoning stone.
But she was nice to me.
She didn’t have to be. I was an awkward curiosity. Unlike the other freshmen, I hadn’t studied Enochian since I could toddle. I didn’t know how to talk or dress to blend in with my fellow students. Rebecca was fearless, and one of the things she didn’t fear was that being friends with me might be an embarrassment.
“You’re interesting, Suzanne!” she said with a laugh, squeezing my hand. “There’s no one else here like you!”
Although she was a freshman, Rebecca already had deep ties to Holyfields. Her older brother, Davis, was a fifth-year senior, and although she only alluded to it in vague terms, I had the impression that he was frustrated by his inability to complete his senior project.
I told her things I regretted, personal things. Not about what I’d done; God, no, I was never ever going to tell anyone about that. I told her about what I hadn’t done. I told her I had never had a boyfriend. One night in the small hours, whispering back and forth in our dorm room, I admitted I’d never been kissed.
STUPID, STUPID, TRUSTING LITTLE SLUT! YOU GOT WHAT YOU DESERVED, DIDN’T YOU?
I grimace at the demon’s thundering voice echoing in my head. I did trust Rebecca. And I don’t know, maybe she has regrets, too. I don’t think she planned it, at least not at first.
Anytime an upperclassman managed to summon a manifestation at Holyfields, the tower bell rang seven times and the news spread like wildfire. Classes were suspended, masters and students alike raced to the Grove to see what divine avatar had manifested, inscrutable angels trailing flames in their wake.
It’s hard to describe the impact of a manifestation. They’re not like angels. They’re more human, more specific, more … immediate. My first was St. Othgard the Shepherd. He smelled like wet wool and sea-spray. I remember his wind-chapped cheekbones and the fierce intent of his gaze, the jut of his beard. There was something about being seen by a manifestation. The angels always seemed to be looking through us. The manifestations looked at us. And for as long as the manifestation lasted, we’d bask in their regard, masters and students alike; taking solace in knowing ourselves to be a member of St. Othgard’s beloved flock; taking a tearful pride in understanding ourselves to be the innocents St. Sithonia gave her life to protect; taking unabashed joy in celebrating ourselves as St. Faunus’ cherished revelers.
Hell, we’d barely even heard of these saints in West Kehokia, and I still fell to my knees and cried like a baby.
The Grove is where I met Rebecca’s brother Davis. There was a manifestation of St. Sithonia the Reformer in my second month at Holyfields. By that time I’d learned that the key to a successful manifestation was obtaining the right talisman; but the talisman had to be earned somehow. You couldn’t just go out and buy some symbolic item. The kid who manifested St. Othgard spent a summer apprenticed to an Icelandic shepherd. The girl who manifested St. Sithonia spent eighteen months trying to grow the perfect blood-red rose.
A tuft of wool, a blood-red rose.
Blushing, I asked Davis what avatar he was trying to manifest and what talisman he thought might do the job. He said he didn’t want to talk about it and I was mortified, but he stood close enough that his shoulder brushed mine while we gazed at St. Sithonia, and afterward he asked me out for coffee.
Thinking about it now makes the demon swell until my skin is as tight as a sausage casing. But beneath the fury and self-loathing, there’s a kernel of bittersweet regret for what might have been, because I think there was a part of Davis that actually did come to like me. I don’t want to talk about it, ha! That was bullshit. We talked for hours and hours, or at least Davis talked and I listened.
It wasn’t just that he was a boy paying attention to me. He had a curious, restless mind driven by his failures—his last in a series of unsuccessful attempts at manifestation was St. Brehanus the Navigator, using a homemade compass—to ask the questions no one wanted to talk about. It was Davis who took me off-campus and pointed out the gelid tangles of shadows lurking in lightless places, Davis who pointed out the Croppers, explaining what they did. I was never afraid, because we always had at least one upper-echelon celestial presence safeguarding our excursions. Afterward he would speculate. What brought the shadows to life? What did they want? Was it true that the Croppers traded their souls in exchange for power, immunity from the shadows?
I didn’t know.
I still don’t, not for sure.
But I loved discussing theories with Davis; theories about parallel universes, theories about how maybe the art of summoning itself could upset the balance of light and dark in the entire cosmos, with New Luxor at its epicenter. It fascinated him to no end that my experience of the world was so very different. He said I gave him a fresh perspective on everything, and I think that was true.
Of course, there was the demon’s voice inside me, too; reminding me of the things I’d done, reminding me that I wasn’t good enough for this nice, clever upper-crust boy, reminding me that Davis would recoil in disgust if he knew what I’d done, what I’d been. At that point it was only a voice, though. I did my best not to listen. I had left Suzie Q behind. At Holyfields, I was Suzanne, only ever Suzanne; Suzanne the unlikely recruit, Suzanne the diligent student.
And Rebecca seemed to approve when I became Suzanne who dated her older brother Davis. “You’re good for him,” she said to me. “Grounding.”
Now I grind my teeth at the memory and Son tugs at me, growing anxious when he sees my skin start to tighten.
“Memories,” I say to him.
Son nods. He’s wise beyond his years, this kid. No wonder the damned Croppers are hell-bent on recruiting him. His soul’s probably the celestial equivalent of a pound of pure white heroin.
I wonder if there’s a parallel universe where any of this makes sense.
During the three months I spent at Holyfields, everything made sense. Even the things that didn’t make sense were mysteries and puzzles to be unpacked and analyzed and eventually solved, or at least so I trusted.
I had my first kiss and more. With Davis’ hands and lips on me, I discovered the narcotic bliss of heavy petting. He was patient with me. Lying side by side, I touched him on my own terms. I learned my body was capable of experiencing pleasure. One by one, I crossed all those thresholds a girl ought to cross before she finds herself on her knees with a boy’s dick in her mouth.
My choices, Suzanne’s choices.
When I told Davis I was a virgin, I thought he might find it off-putting, but he understood. “It would be an honor to be your first,” he said to me in a formal tone. “Truly.” Once the decision was made, I was excited and a little bit tense. A little bit scared of the pain and embarrassed by the possibility of blood. Davis put a towel down on his bed.
And it did hurt, although not that much. He was careful and gentle and slow. There was blood, but not that much. Afterward, he held me tenderly, whispered things that kept the voice in my head silent. I could tell, deep in my body, that the next time would be better, and the next and the next and the next.
STUPID, STUPID, TRUSTING LITTLE SLUT! YOU SHOULD HAVE STUCK TO BLOW JOBS!
I wish I had.
I was in class when the tower bell rang the next morning. The master cocked his head to listen and all around the classroom, freshman summoners snapped to attention.
We raced to the Grove, eager to see what avatar had been manifested, eager for its blessing. Someone ahead of me gave a low whistle, impressed.
Honestly, it’s hard to even say what part of it was the worst. My memory is vague. The sense of betrayal, I suppose; but that didn’t hit at first. At first, all I saw was the manifestation of the Heavenly Virgin Mother beneath the arch of the Proscenium. She wasn’t beautiful in the classical sense. That, I remember. She looked younger than I expected, not more than a teenager herself. Blue robes, brown skin, some kind of head scarf. She had a smattering of pockmarks on her cheeks; old acne scars or chicken pox or something. But her eyes …
They were dark, so dark, and so filled with compassion and sorrow. Her eyes were two thousand years old, and they saw everything; saw and understood; saw and embraced; saw and forgave. She saw me. She knew and understood, and her dark eyes welled with sympathy for the betrayal I had yet to grasp.
The key to summoning a manifestation is obtaining the right talisman, but the talisman has to be earned. There in the Grove, nailed to the arch of the Proscenium, was a standard issue Holyfields Academy off-white cotton dormitory towel, besmirched with a few rusty bloodstains. And there was Davis, looking at once remorseful and guiltily triumphant.
And it is at that moment that I understand that I have been used and how I have been used and it is at that moment that the demon inside me becomes a great deal more than a metaphor. After that everything goes a shattered black and white.
I didn’t kill anyone, though apparently it wasn’t for lack of trying, or so I was informed at my expulsion hearing. Somewhere in the black-white-black-white strobe-light flash of the aftermath, I do remember a sense of the cartilage of Davis’ throat crunching under my grip. I remember trumpets blaring and fiery blades flashing, my fingers being pried loose. I remember Rebecca’s nose slewing sideways under my fist. I went down fighting.
And somewhere, somewhere, I remember that the Heavenly Virgin Mother’s gaze never wavered.
Everything is a lot simpler now. Shelter. Food. Water. Even though I’m nowhere near Holyfields and the Grove, in some ways I feel closer to the elemental nature of the manifestations. I appreciate the fact that, given the demon, this is a bit ironic. In any number of parallel universes, my story could have had many different outcomes. And if it hadn’t been for the taggers, this one might have had a different outcome, too.
I’m not sure whether that’s a bad thing or not.
It happens on a Tuesday, which I know because Son and I always go to the Sisters of Mercy mission on Tuesdays, Taco Tuesdays. There are trays and trays of beans and rice doused in plenty of hot sauce, folded into warm flour tortillas and wrapped in tinfoil. I am having a lucid day. We gorge ourselves and fill our pockets with extras; some for ourselves, some for any other folks who might be sheltering under the bridge that day. On the way back, we do a bit of light scavenging, scoring a couple big sheets of heavy-duty cardboard from an industrial recycling bin. Son lugs them gleefully. You never fully appreciate cardboard until you’ve been homeless.
Meluchiel guards our passage, his ethereal lips pursed in an expression of permanent disdain. I don’t care. The summoning stone glows in my hand, and I lit fresh candles and filled the offering plates before we left. I might have gotten kicked out of Holyfields, but I am a summoner.
Only at fifty paces from the bridge, Meluchiel begins to flicker. He gives me a vaguely apologetic glance.
There are half a dozen of them waiting for us under the bridge; four young men, two girls. The leader is with them. He’s tall, good-looking, broad shoulders and longish hair. He reminds me of Sawyer McKinley, and I feel the bile rise in my throat. I can’t understand how they’re here; and then I see the empty cans of spray paint, and fresh tags scrawled on the concrete. My heart sinks as I realize that taggers have painted over the ward spell on the underside of the bridge. Probably just kids without a clue, daring each other to make a mark on the world. I tighten my grip on my summoning stone, willing Meluchiel to stay and whispering a tense incantation to summon the other angels.
In the dim light beneath the bridge, the leader of the Croppers laughs. He jerks his chin at the others. They kick over my circle of candles, kick over the offering plates, stomp our cardboard fortress flat. Melted wax and honey spill onto the concrete. Shadows gather, squirming out of the corners.
With a faint chime of regret, pallid Meluchiel winks out of existence. None of the others, I understand, will answer my summons.
“Hey, Son!” The leader of the Croppers saunters forward, the others in tow. He snaps his fingers. “Time’s up. Ready to join us?”
All of this takes place in broad daylight, but daylight alone has never been a match for the shadows. The shadows trail behind the Croppers the way the angels trail behind their summoners, only eager, avid. Hungry.
Son has dropped the cardboard he was carrying. Trembling beside me, he tugs at my free hand, mouths the word, run?
I don’t want to run. I am tired of being afraid. I am tired of being a victim. A rage so pure and transcendent that it’s almost peaceful settles over me. I put my summoning stone in my pocket, where it nestles alongside three warm, foil-wrapped tacos. The demon inside me roils and swells, uttering a furious rising roar only I can hear. It is a thing of darkness born of abuse and self-loathing, impotent fury and betrayal, but it is my thing.
My demon does not own me. I own it.
And I am a summoner.
I spread my arms wide, moving to shield Son with my body; or maybe from seeing what I’m about to do. Ranging before me in a semicircle, the Croppers pause in confusion. My gut surges.
All those times I managed not to puke. Now, I do. I open my mouth and unhinge my jaw, and I vomit forth the demon inside me.
It is bigger than me.
It is viscous and slimy, made of cum and blood and drool. It is acrid and gritty, made of the gravel in the playground, the asphalt in the parking lot of the 7-11. It is as tough and dense as bubblegum flattened under truck tires. It is as dank as the air under the bridge, as rancid and stale as a cup of beer the morning after a kegger. It is resentment and disgust. It is blood dripping from my stepdad’s knuckles, it is my mother’s missing molars. It is the mocking laughter of teenage girls. It is the callousness of administrators, it is the silence of those in power. It is an empty overturned baby carriage.
It is a towel nailed to the Proscenium, smeared with the blood of my torn hymen. It is every goddamn dick I ever sucked.
And yet …
It is also the compassion in the Heavenly Virgin Mother’s gaze; and the guilt in Davis’s, too. It is honey in a pie tin. It is the foil-wrapped tacos in my pocket, the limp dollar bills given to me by those who could least afford it. It is Son’s hand knotted in belt-loops of my jeans, terrified and trusting.
It is me, and it is powerful and remorseless.
It kills the leader of the Croppers, swallowing him at a gulp; it kills two more before the others flee, taking their shadows with them.
The demon lopes back to me, eyes glowing red. For the first time, we are at peace with each other. It sits on its haunches. I flatten my palm against its slick flesh.
Son sidles out from behind me, his eyes wide with wonder, mouthing a dozen silent questions.
I smile at him. “Her name is Suzie Q.”