Story: Possessed

(My most recent effort in the genre of short horror fiction.  I don’t know about you lot, but I try to be friends with my demons!)

“You don’t have to be so nervous,” Hannah reassured me. “It may seem strange to you, but this is just going to be a routine intervention. We do it all the time, actually.”

“I don’t know,” I muttered, wringing my hands together as I stared fixedly at the cracked pavement passing beneath my feet. “‘Routine’ doesn’t exactly seem like the right word to describe an exorcism. Besides, if I actually do have demons inside me, shouldn’t we be a little more… well, alarmed about it?”

“Oh, Jess,” Hannah chided with a knowing smile, “Lots of people have demons in them. I’d go so far as to say most people, actually. They just don’t realize it. It’s really nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Okay, yeah, I get that lots of people have metaphorical demons to deal with – phobias, addictions, depression, that sorta thing – but we’re talking about real demons, right? Living, thinking spirits from Hell that want to get inside you and take over your soul?”

“Yep!” Hannah replied. Her cheerfully matter-of-fact demeanor was almost eerie given the subject of the discussion. “It’s demons that cause all of those things! There’s no mental illness, no perversion of the mind, no sickness of the soul which doesn’t ultimately have a demon or two behind it. Some people are just infested worse than others. There are all kinds of ways to make yourself vulnerable to them: committing sins, denying God, having impure thoughts, messing with the occult – that includes those Harry Potter books, by the way,” she added, shooting a pointed glance in my direction.

“Say what you want,” I pouted, “I’m not getting rid of them.”

“You’re going to have to if you want to join our church.”

“I never said I was definitely joining,” I rebutted. “I said I was going to think about joining. If this whole exorcism thing actually works.”

“It’ll work,” Hannah smugly assured me. “Never failed us yet. Of course, faith and penitence usually keep the Godly safe from demons on a day-to-day basis, even though at heart we’re as sinful as anyone else. But sometimes Satan’s forces can crack even the thickest armor, and once they’ve laid down roots, your ordinary prayers and church services aren’t going to evict them. That’s where exorcism comes in.”

“Uh-huh,” I muttered ambiguously, trying not to dismiss her ramblings outright. After all, I’d agreed to at least give this a fair shot, right?

“You’re one of the worst cases we’ve dealt with for a while though, I suppose,” Hannah continued, ignorant of my growing discomfort. “What with all of the occult novels and the video games and the bad influences you hang out with… you’ve even been skipping your own church services lately, haven’t you?”

“Hey, give it a rest!” I snapped. “I came here to try and get better, not to be guilt-tripped. And my friends are not bad influences.”

“That one girl you’re friends with is an atheist, isn’t she? Ruth something-or-other?”

“Agnostic,” I corrected tersely. “And it’s not like she’s trying to de-convert me or anything. We barely even talk about that stuff.”

Hannah merely shook her head and tutted softly, as if she was the one being forced to tolerate someone else’s nonsense. “The public school system nowadays is a godless hellhole. I’m so glad my parents decided to home-school me.”

It was obvious that she expected a response from me, but I just huffed in exasperation and glared away. I was already having second thoughts about this whole idea, and continuing on this tack was obviously only going to make things worse.

Hannah had been my next-door neighbor for almost fifteen years. Given that we were both juniors in high school, that accounted for most of our lives. Her family had always considered mine a bad influence, and mine had found hers a bit overbearing. However, that hadn’t stopped the two of us from spending much of our childhoods together: playing tag, riding our bikes, having tea parties, and generally amusing ourselves with the usual innocent pastimes. As long as her family didn’t catch us with any “contraband” (an extensive and ever-growing list including cards, dice, action figures, Gameboys, and pop music), our differences in religion usually weren’t a problem. You know how it is when you’re a kid: you dress up in itchy clothes every Sunday and parrot back what your parents and teachers tell you, but you don’t really think about it too deeply or wonder if other people believe the same things.

Anyway, Hannah and I had been drifting apart for a while, especially since we’d started high school – me at the big magnet school down the road, and her still at home with her parents, as she had been since Pre-K. I’d started running with a new crowd (mostly my fellow track team members), and she’d started withdrawing more into her church life and the local networks of home-schooled children. We still talked every once in a while, but I never would have thought I’d wind up coming to her for help with serious life problems. At least, not until a few weeks ago.

It all started with the nightmares. The same one, every night. I’d fall asleep only to find myself running through a maze of dark, empty corridors, all with featureless walls and cold, tiled floors. The colors were drab and the corridors seemed to go on forever, sometimes twisting and turning like a contorted serpent, sometimes stretching infinitely forward into a foggy, indiscernible distance. I did not know why I was running, where from, or where to – only that I felt compelled to keep moving no matter what happened, thrusting one foot in front of the other in an endless, plodding rhythm.

There was little concept of time in that desolate place, but as the dream went on, the environment seemed to become more and more hostile, though on the surface nothing about it had changed. An anxious knot formed in the pit of my stomach, goosebumps began to rise all across my flesh, the dreary walls became suddenly claustrophobic and seemed to suffocate me with their proximity. I tried to push my pace faster even as my breath became ragged and strained, but despite my real-life prowess at both sprinting and cross-country, in my dream I moved as if through molasses across the unchanging landscape, with no way of discerning how far I had gone. It felt like I was losing a race, exactly like I was losing a race, but against whom or what I did not know. I became afraid to look behind me, but I was also afraid of what might lie ahead. Was I even going the right way? I didn’t know. All I knew was that my anxiety and terror were mounting by the moment, the strain in my chest becoming so great that it felt as though my heart might literally burst. And just when I felt as though I could not possibly take one moment more… I would wake up, panting and drenched in sweat as if I had just sprinted a 400-meter dash.

The nightmares weren’t all, though. During my waking hours, I was becoming more and more moody. Volatile. Unpredictable. I would find myself lashing out at friends over tiny annoyances, bursting into tears at the slightest provocation. I tried to think rationally and control myself, I really did… but more often than not, I failed. It was like my heart would just suddenly seize up and I would see red, and from that moment on blind emotion was in control of my body. The fear of losing my cool made me want to avoid social interactions, and I found myself withdrawing from friends, classes, church… even track. My grades were beginning to suffer. Sometimes it took all of the willpower I had just to pull myself out of bed in the morning.

Everyone in my life seemed to notice the changes in me – even my parents, who were usually too busy with meetings, business deals, and the like to see past the fronts of their noses… or the screens of their laptops. I talked with my mom about things a little, but she assured me that mood swings were just a part of puberty, probably helped along by anxiety about grades or track and the imminent prospect of graduation. Her advice amounted to little more than “buck up and put yourself back out there; you’ll do fine” – a maddeningly unhelpful sentiment which I could just as easily have gotten out of a fortune cookie. It seemed that as long as I was well enough to drag myself to school and not get into too much trouble, I wasn’t getting much more help on the parental front.

My friend Ruth, on the other hand, was getting really worried about me. Ruth was the captain of the track team, my good friend since elementary school and my best friend since starting high school. She was a year older than me and considerably more athletic, but she was more of a jumper and a pole-vaulter than a runner, so I didn’t get too jealous. Of course, we didn’t get to be in the same classes most of the time, but we rode together to every track meet and spent nearly every lunch, free period, and practice session together. Ruth knew me better than anyone, and it was she who first suggested that I might be experiencing the beginnings of depression. She cut me all kinds of slack about missing track practice, set me up for a meeting with the school counselor, and even offered to talk to my parents about getting me professional help – but I wasn’t comfortable asking her to do that.

Ruth is the one I would have preferred to talk to about my problems, but she was a senior now, and she had enough on her plate already without me piling on. She had the state track finals to worry about, was applying to no fewer than twelve colleges, was president of the National Honor Society, and to top it all off, her mother was undergoing breast cancer treatment at the local hospital. By all accounts, Ruth had much more pressure on her than I did, so I felt guilty and weak complaining to her about my own practically imaginary issues. As for the school guidance counselor, Mrs. Hayworth… well, she tried her best, but she was really more suited to helping kids with class schedules and college plans than nightmares and mood disorders. I didn’t even feel right about venting to her most of the time.

So it was that yesterday, when my childhood friend Hannah casually asked me how I’d been, I wound up losing it and spilling everything to her in a tear-soaked jumble, pleading for her to help me. When I had finally finished, Hannah had looked at me in pensive silence for a long moment, then asked:

“Would you be willing to try something that you might find a little bit strange?”

And now here we were, walking down the weathered concrete sidewalk towards Hannah’s church, where her pastor would allegedly cure my spiritual ills by expelling the demons from my body. I wasn’t sure exactly how much of Hannah’s gobbledygook I believed, but I was a Christian, so I suppose I believed in demons in at least a vague, metaphysical sense. Besides, I was desperate to get some kind of help regarding my current condition, and it couldn’t hurt to at least try this… right?

The nightmares and mood swings had come out of nowhere, after all – as though I had been afflicted by a supernatural force. Maybe this demon business actually had something to it.

After a few minutes of walking in awkward silence, Hannah’s church came into view at the end of the street, looming out from behind a veil of twisted, barren branches. It was a plain and austere building, constructed of whitewashed wooden planks from which the paint was badly peeling. There were no windows, merely a pair of solid oak double doors positioned dead center in the front wall. The church’s most striking feature was its towering steeple, which thrust a simple wooden cross proudly into the heavens above the surrounding forest. Given the state of disrepair of the building below it, I was surprised that the massive monument was still standing – it looked like a good breeze should have knocked it flat.

God’s will in action, I thought, only half-jokingly.

All kidding aside, though, the closer that we drew to the church, the more the building began to seem… intimidating. I had never been to Hannah’s church before; in fact, I wasn’t even sure what denomination it was. The building was way out on the edge of town, almost a mile from the nearest house, and no sign announced its name or address to those who approached it. If I was with anyone else, I would have found the place sketchy, at best. Even as it was, an involuntary shiver ran down my spine, and I took a deep breath to try to calm myself down.

Hannah must have noticed my trepidation, because she stopped us just in front of the church doors and turned to look me somberly in the eye. I held her gaze, but only with an effort.

“Now look, Jess,” she said, giving me her best “patient and understanding” voice. “I know that you’re not entirely sure about all this exorcism stuff, and that’s okay. But we’re still going to need some measure of faith and cooperation from you if this is really going to work. It is super important that you go into this 100 percent ready to give your heart to Jesus.”

“I’m a Methodist, Hannah,” I laughed nervously, casting my gaze to the pavement. “I’ve already been saved, you know?”

“Your tongue has confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord, and you have accepted him as your Savior. That is a good start. But this goes deeper than that. You must be prepared to surrender your life to God, to fully commit yourself to Him, body and soul, if we are to drive the demons from your flesh. As the Bible says: ‘Since God has shown us great mercy, I beg you to offer your lives as a living sacrifice to him. Your offering must be only for God and pleasing to him.’”

“Huh. I don’t know if I ever heard that verse before,” I muttered, feeling more uncomfortable by the second.

“Romans 12:1,” Hannah recalled cheerfully. “One of my favorites – and one of the most important! You really ought to have learned about it in church. You should come to Bible study with me sometime; I bet I could teach you lots of other things your church left out!”

“Hrm,” I muttered noncommittally, shrugging off Hannah’s enthusiasm. “Let’s just see how today goes first, okay?”

“Sounds good to me! So, are you ready to be cleansed by God?”

“I said I’d do it, didn’t I?” I answered, which wasn’t exactly a yes, but was apparently good enough for Hannah. She beamed at me proudly and swept me through the church doors, which closed behind us with an ominous *thud.*

The inside of the church was actually rather well-lit and cheerful compared to its dilapidated exterior. It was bare and spartan, sure, decorated with little more than a few rows of pews and a large wooden pulpit, behind which hung a poster of the Ten Commandments designed to look as though carved in stone. But the building’s single room was bright, airy, and open, with a ceiling that seemed to stretch upwards well into the steeple above.

The room was also filled with smiling churchgoers, about two dozen or so matronly and paternal-looking types dressed in the same plain and conservative clothing that Hannah herself favored. A few smaller children were also scattered here and there, seeming unusually patient and well-behaved. At the pulpit stood what I could only assume was the church’s pastor, a middle-aged man who appeared relaxed and at home amidst his flock.

I took a few halting steps down the center aisle, then Hannah took my arm and coaxed me at a more steady pace towards the pulpit. The eyes of the congregation followed us as we went, and although they all looked friendly and welcoming, their concentrated gaze struck me as slightly eerie. Chiding myself for being so mistrustful, I shook the feeling off and stopped resolutely in front of the pastor.

“Welcome, my child,” he intoned serenely, reaching out to shake my hand. I took his hand warily and shook it, suddenly aware of the sweatiness of my palms. Hannah left my side and receded back into the crowd of parishioners, leaving me feeling alone and vulnerable.

“You are here to be healed of your demons, are you not?” the pastor inquired.

“Y-yes,” I stuttered, meeting his eyes briefly before averting my gaze once again to the floorboards. The man’s intent stare seemed to bore directly into my soul.

“Well, let us waste no time, then,” he replied. “Once we begin the exorcism, you must follow my instructions exactly, for as long as your body will allow. Are you prepared to do this?”

“Yes,” I answered again, my voice holding a little stronger this time.

“Very good,” he said with a somber smile. “Kneel here before me, my child. I shall place my hand upon your brow and begin the rite of healing.”

Taking a deep breath to steady my nerves, I lowered myself slowly to the rough wooden floor and knelt before the pastor. My gaze shifted upwards to his calm, reassuring face as he reached out his right hand to place two fingers gently upon my forehead.

“Now, concentrate upon your faith and the holy presence of God and repeat after me,” he instructed.

“Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.”

“Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name,” I repeated, and the congregation murmured it along with me.

Hey, this isn’t so bad, I thought. I may not have been a Biblical scholar like Hannah, but I still knew the Lord’s Prayer forwards, backwards, and in my sleep. Was this all that I had been worried about?

”Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.”

“Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” I was beginning to feel more at ease now, and even directed a small smile up towards the pastor. He, however, was no longer looking at me, but seemed to have fixed his gaze on some unknown point in the distance, as though he was staring into another world. His expression was blank and severe.

“Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.”

“Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.” The voices of the congregation seemed louder now, nearly drowning out my own. I shifted my gaze from the pastor and looked around… and my heart leapt into my throat. All around us, the parishioners had drawn closer, forming an impenetrable ring of bodies around the pastor and me. The crowd seemed thicker than the scarcely two dozen people from earlier should have accounted for. They wore the same flat expression as the pastor, but unlike him, their eyes were all focused directly on me, blank yet somehow intent.

“And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.”

“A-a-and lead us not into t-temptation,” I stuttered, my pulse quickening as I tried to quell the jolt of fear that had just run through me. “B-but d-deliver us from evil.”

“You see,” said the pastor, breaking from his recitation to address me, yet still not looking me in the eye. “The demons cause your voice to falter. They cannot abide speaking the word of God. They cause your hands to tremble and your heart to fill with fear.”

“N-no,” I protested weakly. “I’m just nervous, t-that’s all. You’re all staring at me!”

“For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever.
Amen.”

The pastor continued as though I had not spoken. “F-for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory,” I parroted, but the voices of the congregation were becoming ever louder, and I was forced to practically shout in order to be heard. “FOR EVER AND EVER. AM – ekkkcchh!”

Between my nervousness, dry throat, and ill-advised effort to yell, my voice broke on the final syllable. The pastor’s gaze snapped downwards and his eyes bored into mine with a sudden ferocity. I flinched backwards involuntarily and averted my gaze to the floor. Before I could recover my composure enough to repeat the “Amen,” the pastor was speaking again, this time at a frenzied and vehement pace that my mind could barely work fast enough to follow.

“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil! For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places!”

“P-put on the whole armor of God! That you…” The congregation and I both echoed his words, but after only a few seconds I fell woefully behind, my voice lost in the cacophony now bouncing about the high-ceilinged room like some demonic Super Ball. The man was on again before the congregation had even finished the verse.

“You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God!? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God!”

“A-adulterous… friendship… enemy of God!” I spluttered hopelessly, barely able to choke out every third word. The congregation, I could only assume, was reciting perfectly, though I could barely make out the words with so many speaking at once.

“Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded! Be wretched and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom! Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you!”

“Cleanse your hands… your hearts… be wretched!…” I tried to shake off the fear, the disconcerting nature of the words dancing across my tongue, and focus upon the purely mechanical task of memorizing and repeating. Still I found it nearly impossible to keep up.

“I have been crucified with Christ! It is no longer I who live, but CHRIST WHO LIVES IN ME!!”

The pastor’s recitation reached a crescendo, but before I could even attempt to repeat him, his left hand came up and a previously unseen flask of water splashed across my face, icy and unexpected. I jerked back instinctively, my hands coming up to protect my eyes. Behind me, a hand pressed in between my shoulder blades and shoved me roughly back into place; I barely managed to stop myself from falling face-first onto the floor. And still the pastor continued speaking.

“Stipendia enim peccati mors gratia autem Dei vita aeterna in Christo Iesu Domino nostro!”

“Stipe- wait, WHAT?” I replied incredulously, still on my hands and knees coughing the ice-water out of my throat. Was that Latin? I didn’t know Latin!

“Omnes enim peccaverunt et egent gloriam Dei!! Gratia enim estis salvati per fidem et hoc non ex vobis Dei enim donum est!!”

I had now given up all pretense of being able to reply and merely stared dumbfoundedly as a chorus of echoes rose up from the congregation. Suddenly, a man standing right next to me collapsed to the floor, writhing and convulsing as if in agony. A string of incoherent gibberish streamed from his mouth as mucus and spittle began to drip down his chin. His face was as red as a beet.

I yelped and flinched away from the flailing man, uncertain whether I should be afraid of him or afraid for him. Shockingly, though, the rest of the congregation barely reacted, continuing their recitation as though nothing of note had happened.

Okay, that is IT, I thought, mortified. I’m done. ENOUGH. End of exorcism. I needed to get out of there before things got even more out-of-hand… and maybe call an ambulance for that seizing guy. I pushed myself up off of the floor and got maybe two steps backwards before a pair of strong arms seized me about the chest and pulled me into a crushing headlock.

I gave a choked exclamation of pain and fear as I struggled to free myself from the man’s grip, but his muscular limbs held me in place like a steel vise. I could barely move… barely breathe. Trembling, I lifted my gaze from the floor to find the pastor’s face mere inches from mine, his fierce blue eyes piercing twin holes in my skull. Tears slipped down my cheeks as I tried to beg him to release me, but my throat was crushed by the unyielding grasp of my captor. The pastor laid his right palm across my clammy forehead – then raised his left hand and slapped me dead in the face. His expression never wavered, but I felt the jolt from the stinging hit race down my neck and all across my body, as I tried and failed to cry out in pain.

“THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU!!!” he screamed, spit flying from his lips as he brought his face in even closer to mine. His skin was now as flushed and blotchy as that of the flailing man. “BEGONE, UNCLEAN SPIRITS!! I CAST THEE OUT!!” Another slap; another jolt of shock and pain. “DEPART FROM ME, YOU CURSED, INTO THE ETERNAL FIRE PREPARED FOR THE DEVIL AND HIS ANGELS!!!”

I was becoming lightheaded, my vision bleaching out into shades of white and yellow. My body ceased to struggle, and just as I thought that I was certain to pass out, my captor’s arms released me and I collapsed heavily to the hard wooden floor, cracking my forehead against the floorboards. I coughed and retched, trying to gulp down air at the same time as my stomach tried to empty its contents. My whole body shook as though I’d just shot up a lethal dose of stimulants, and for a while the only sound I could hear was the painful throbbing of my temples.

I’m not sure how long I crouched there, a quivering lump barely capable of holding my face above my own puddled vomit. Could have been seconds. Could have been hours. Perhaps it was an eternity contained within a moment. All I knew was that when I finally gathered the strength to gaze up into the pastor’s imperious stare, I felt… emptied out, somehow, as if all of the tears and the terror and the disbelief had fled and left me all numb inside.

“Now,” intoned the pastor, apparently still not done with me despite all that I had been through. “Confess to your sins.”

“W-what?” I stuttered, my voice still hoarse and scratchy from the hold around my neck.

“Now that your demons have fled, we must make sure not to let them back in again. Confess your sins, repent, and be filled with the living armor of the Lord.”

“O-okay,” I choked, racking my brain for something to confess. For a moment, my thoughts could conjure nothing but a big fuzzy blank, thrown out of focus by the trauma I had just experienced. Then, I flashed back on the conversation I’d had earlier with Hannah, and I blurted the first thing that came to mind.

“I… I like the Harry Potter books…”

“WITCHCRAFT!” shouted the pastor, and I flinched backwards, surprised by his sudden outburst.

“Witchcraft, witchcraft, witchcraft…” echoed the congregation, chanting in a low monotone as accusing glares pierced me from all directions. A shiver ran down my spine, and a heavy knot of shame began to form in my stomach. Yet still I continued to confess, the sins now lining up faster and faster in my mind, as if racing to expel themselves into the congregation for judgment.

“I-I… I sometimes get really jealous when people beat me at track! I wish that they would quit, or even get hurt so that I could win!”

“ENVY!” screamed the pastor.

“Envy, envy, envy…” chanted the congregation.

“A-and I feel really superior when I beat other people!” I continued. “Sometimes I even talk trash about them behind their backs just to make me feel bigger!”

“PRIDE!” yelled the pastor.

“Pride, pride, pride…”

“I skipped our school’s annual volunteer day to see a movie with my friends! I told my parents I was helping at a soup kitchen!”

“SLOTH!! DECEPTION!!”

“Deception, deception, deception…”

“I’ve been yelling at all of my friends…” I confessed, fresh tears starting to run down my cheeks. “For stuff that isn’t even their fault, just… taking it out on them. I even pushed Andrea last week…”

“WRATH!” the pastor accused.

“Wrath, wrath, wrath…”

“A-and when I look at this boy in my math class, I-I feel like I want to… to…” I couldn’t even finish, but the pastor finished for me.

“LUST!!” he cried out.

“Lust, lust, lust…”

“I-I think I… I think I even have feelings for my best friend!” The words slipped out without premeditation, surprising me as much as anyone else. However, I recognized the truth of them immediately.

“SODOMY!! UNNATURAL PASSION!!!” the pastor shrieked, before I’d even had time to process the unexpected revelation.

“Sodomy, Sodomy, Sodomy…”

“Up until now, I… I’ve even been doubting that God exists,” I finished, hanging my head in shame and clutching my arms to my sides, as if to make myself as small as possible.

“BLASPHEMY!” the pastor hissed.

“Blasphemy, blasphemy, blasphemy…”

This time I let the chant tail off into silence on its own, feeling too spent to continue with the endless litany of sins. After a few moments of awkward silence, I murmured dejectedly into the floor: “That’s all I can think of right now, but I’m sure that there’s a lot more I should feel crappy about.” I was too mired in self-loathing to even lift my gaze to gauge people’s reactions. “Oh, I ate two desserts after lunch yesterday. Don’t know if that counts.”

I half expected a cry of “gluttony!” to rise from the congregation at that final admission. Instead, I felt a warm, gentle hand place itself on my shoulder. Surprised, I lifted my tear-streaked face to see the pastor standing over me, his severe glare now replaced with a reassuring smile.

“Rise, my child,” he said, placing his other hand in mine and lifting me from the floor. My legs trembled under the weight of my body and he allowed me to lean on him for support. “We are all brothers and sisters in sin, my child, all fallen short of the glory of God. But you have taken a great step here today. You have renounced your sin and embraced the Lord’s gift of salvation. Now you shall be filled with the grace of God, and Christ will live in you and work in you, and He will deliver you from sin.”

“It shall still be a struggle for you sometimes, no doubt. You must not let yourself be shaped by this world, but instead be changed within by a new way of thinking. Then you will be able to discern what God wants for you, you will know what is good and pleasing to him and what is perfect. And his plan for you is a perfect one, my child – a plan for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope, and equip you with everything good that you may do his will.”

I nodded, tears still flowing freely down my face. I wasn’t sure I understood everything that he’d said, but the message was clear: You’re going to be all right now. You’re one of us, and God will be with you.  For the first time in weeks, I felt a bubble of joy rise in my chest, strong and visceral. I should have been more freaked out about what I’d just experienced, my rational mind knew that, but for now I could muster nothing but a bittersweet feeling of contentment and belonging. This whole day felt hazy and unreal, with me just drifting along wherever the current took me.

“I think perhaps it’s time for our guest to go home, now,” the pastor suggested softly, and Hannah emerged from the crowd to take my arm, beaming with effervescent joy.

“Come on, Jess!” she exclaimed, leading me gently down the aisle and towards the front doors. “Let’s get you back home to decompress! You did good!”

“Mmmmnnn,” I hummed my assent tiredly, closing my eyes and leaning my head against her shoulder. In this contented daze, Hannah guided me all the way home, right up to my front door. I murmured goodbye as she dropped me off, stepping gratefully into the warm familiarity of my own home and closing the door behind me. I then made a beeline for my room, barely stopping to greet my parents, and collapsed into bed, exhausted. I was asleep in less than ten minutes.

I came awake slowly the next morning, drifting in and out of hazy shades of half-consciousness as sunlight streamed through my open curtains. Even though it was a Sunday, my parents were up early as usual, knocking about making breakfast and talking loudly on their cell phones. Annoyed, I rolled over in bed and pulled the covers up over my head. I was in the middle of the best sleep that I’d had in weeks, so I really didn’t feel like getting up…

Realization hit me like dash of cold water, snapping me into full consciousness. I didn’t have any nightmares last night!! For the first time in almost two months, I hadn’t had the nightmare! The events of the previous day came flooding back to me all at once. The church, the exorcism, the confession, walking home with my head on Hannah’s shoulder… a shiver coursed through my body as I remembered the way that the pastor had hit me, the suffocating feeling of being held in place during the exorcism. For a moment I regretted going through with it, but then I wasn’t so sure. Did my dreamless sleep last night mean that it had actually worked?

Crazy and unpleasant as it was, had Hannah’s exorcism really solved all of my problems?

I sat up slowly in bed, stretching my muscles experimentally. Something in my neck and shoulders still felt sore from yesterday, but it was a good kind of soreness, like the aftermath of a vigorous workout. Blinking the sleep out of my eyes, I glanced around the sun-streaked room, and my gaze happened to fall upon the bookshelf across from my bed. My heart gave a sudden lurch, as if with vertigo, and my stomach churned with a feeling of noxious guilt.

Across the room, seven hardcover editions of the Harry Potter books stood on the shelf, their bold, reflective titles seeming to leap out from the surrounding volumes to glare at me in accusation.

For a moment, I merely sat and stared, transfixed by the strange jumble of emotions that ran through my mind at the sight of them. Gone were the feelings of warmth, nostalgia, and affection that usually characterized my visits to those fictional worlds. In their place I felt an involuntary surge of revulsion, self-loathing, and even fear sweep through my body. More than a little bit disturbed, I racked my brain for the reasons why I had loved the books, the arguments I’d used to justify the literary tropes of fantasy and magic against the ire of fundamentalists.

Nothing. Not a single reason came to mind. Regardless of how I had felt yesterday, the acclaimed volumes sitting across the room from me now seemed to radiate pure evil, as if lying in wait to ensnare unwary minds into the world of paganism and occult ritual.

Seized with a sudden jolt of fury – towards both myself and the outside world – I leapt across the room and swept the books violently onto the floor, kicking and stomping on them for good measure before gathering them in my arms and chucking them all in the wastebin just outside my door. I then stormed from the house, slamming the front door behind me as I practically ran down the front walk and towards the park at the end of our street.

I don’t think my parents even noticed me leaving.

It was a windy, overcast November morning, the weather perfectly reflecting my tumultuous emotional state. A chilled shiver ran down my spine as I realized that I was still wearing my clothes from yesterday: a short-sleeved blouse and a pair of thin, ragged jeans. Not exactly ideal for the current climate, at least not without my jacket (which I now remembered taking off and hanging next to the front door last night).

I wasn’t going back for it, though. Not by a long shot. The nervous energy coursing through my body was too great to permit backtracking, and the familiarity of home now seemed hostile and alien in my mind. Exposing myself to the elements seemed oddly appropriate, as well – it seemed a sort of punishment, a halfhearted attempt at self-flagellation. Wasn’t suffering supposed to build one’s character, to aid one in contemplation and striving towards enlightenment? I searched my mind for any sort of profound changes, but all I felt was cold.

By the time I got to the park I was blinking back tears. I wasn’t sure how being here could possibly help me, but somehow it was better than being at home. I think that being out in nature, amidst the creation of God instead of the creation of man, probably had something to do with it. Although calling this park “nature” might have been a bit of an overstatement. The place was small and under-funded, with a few pieces of rusty playground equipment, a couple acres of scraggly woods, and short “hiking” trail leading around a sad, algae-choked duck pond. On a morning like this, it was unsurprisingly deserted.

Unable to think of anything else to do, I sighed deeply and started walking along the hiking trail. It was miserable going at first, between the cold and the mud and the depressingly bare woods all around me. But after a while, I seemed to hit my stride and relax a little bit, to turn off my mind and just soak in the world around me. It felt nice not to think about anything, to forget about school, demons, and exorcisms and just BE. I noticed a cardinal singing from high up on a tree, a squirrel rushing about collecting acorns to cache for the winter. Those little things, I was relieved to note, sent the same ripple of happiness through me that they always had, and I started to feel a little bit better.

After my first lap around the trail I began to jog, my body delighting in the physical exercise. I hadn’t realized it, but my poor attendance at track practice had left my body deprived of its usual activity, and it felt fantastic to get back out there. I ran for hours upon hours, stopping occasionally to watch the ducks or some other interesting tidbit of nature. Once, I jogged across the street to buy a water bottle and a protein bar from the corner store… but I got out of there as quickly as I could. The place was hardly crowded, but the presence of even a few patrons made me weirdly uneasy. I found myself instinctively avoiding peoples’ eyes, and whenever my gaze happened to fall upon a man’s buttocks or a woman’s breast, I would flinch away with a painful stab of disgust and shame. The brightly-colored packages of candy and donuts and salty snacks almost hurt my eyes, and I found myself quivering with distress… even hate… at the indulgence that surrounded me. I fled the store as soon as I got what I needed, anxious to put the experience and the foreign emotions behind me. Maybe if I just ran for long enough things would start seeming normal again.

Before I knew it, the sun was beginning to set, and I knew that I needed to get back home. Even my parents would notice if I stayed out past sundown without giving them a heads-up. I decided on just one more lap around the trail, and about halfway through – to my surprise – I met another jogger. It was a woman I didn’t recognize, with a bottled-blonde ponytail and expensive-looking workout clothes: bright pink and black Under Armor, tennis shoes so shiny and clean they nearly glowed, an iPod in a fancy armband carrier, and a CamelBak strapped across her back. I jogged up beside her, and she glanced over at me from behind stylish sunglasses.

I could see condescension written all over her face the moment she saw me: sweaty and red-faced, hair loose and tangled, wearing the same wrinkled street clothes I’d slept in. It was clear that she thought she was better than me. Resentful, I frowned and upped my pace, pulling ahead of her on the trail. The woman took my challenge, jogging a bit faster and pulling ahead of me in turn. I didn’t know how long she’d been running, but I heard her beginning to breathe harder and faster as she went past me. I smiled. I so had this.

We raced each other around the rest of the trail, then turned and continued down the sidewalk towards my house. The pavement fell easily beneath my feet, as if I were flying. After almost a full day’s worth of walking and light jogging, I’d hit my second wind, and I was loving it. I was in the zone. The woman, on the other hand, was now breathing in short, ragged bursts, and she looked distinctly more disheveled than when I had met her. We ran on past my house, but I didn’t care. I was seeing this through to the end. Finally, after about ten more minutes of running, the woman gave up and slowed to a sluggish walk, leaning at the waist and panting as she drank thirstily from her CamelBak. I let out an elated whoop as I continued running, even allowing myself to pump my fist in the air. I’d beat her, the conceited witch!! I’d really shown her a thing or –

The guilt and shame barreled into me like a freight train. At that moment it was as if I was back in the church all over again, accusing voices pummeling me from all directions.

PRIDE! ENVY! WRATH!

I ground to a screeching halt, doubling over with my hands on my knees as if the wind had been knocked out of me. The joy of victory had vanished, leaving me feeling almost queasy with self-loathing. For a moment I thought I might vomit right there on the pavement. As I stared at the ground, panting and trembling, the blonde woman power-walked right by me, shooting me a patronizing look of pity as she went. I felt like the lowest form of life on the earth, incapable of living morally or even succeeding in my immorality.

Once I had recovered enough energy, I turned around and trudged home in a fog of depression. I ate dinner in front of the TV, looking at it but not really seeing it, just using it as an excuse not to talk to my parents. I went to bed less than half an hour after eating, then proceeded to spend the next two hours staring at the ceiling, trying to sleep but unable to turn off my brain. I was dreading going back to school tomorrow. What if it was exactly like the store this morning? What if I couldn’t even make it through the day? After what seemed like an eternity, exhaustion finally drove me into the arms of sleep; and once again, there were no nightmares.

Now the nightmares began when I woke up.

The next few days of school were nearly unbearable, worse even than I had imagined. Every shallow giggle, every kissing couple, every goth kid or smoker or discussion of the latest Twilight movie sent a new stab of revulsion and fear piercing through my mind like an ice-pick. Everything around me just seemed… dirty somehow, as if it might contaminate me just by looking at it. I spent my classes fidgeting, eyes locked on my notebook, trying not to even think about anything that surrounded me. Math class was okay; I could just pour all my brainpower into solving complex equations and forget about anything else. But Biology class was like purgatory, English Lit like Hell. The teacher of the latter kept trying to make me participate in our discussion of The Great Gatsby, but all I could think about was how decadent the culture was, how sinful the protagonists, how godless the author. I would wind up murmuring some half-answer into my desk and refusing to participate any further.

But lunch periods were by far the worst. I had been withdrawing from my friends already, but now I felt compelled to cut myself off entirely. I couldn’t talk with them. I couldn’t listen to them. I could barely look at them without my stomach curling into a knot of frustration and despair. I didn’t know how or why I’d ever become friends with these fearful, alien beings; but I still knew that I was their friend, and the idea that they might now feel shunned and despised by me filled my heart with a sense of deep shame. After only a few minutes of standing in the lunch line with them as usual, I hurriedly excused myself to the restroom and hid there for the remainder of the period.

I tried going to track practice on my first day back, but never again after that. As much as I tried to keep things all business, my interactions with my peers were as uncomfortable and forced as they had been during lunch period. Not to mention the fact that every time someone mentioned the possibility of winning the state championships, I would hear the words “pride!” and “envy!” start bouncing around in my head as if shouted by tiny demons. I took no pleasure from running anymore; it just left me feeling tired and hollow inside.

And Ruth… every time I saw her, it was like my heart was trying to tear itself in two. I hadn’t forgotten what I had realized that day inside the church, and I was so disgusted with myself that I thought she must smell it, oozing from my pores like some vile miasma. Had our entire “friendship” been based on a lie – on a perverted desire that I had suppressed and hidden even from myself? Would she hate me if she knew?

Should she hate me? Should I hate her…?

It was evident that Ruth had at least realized that something was off about me, because she kept trying to talk to me about it. Not just at that last track practice I went to, but in the morning, during lunch, even in the hallways between classes. I usually managed to shake her off fairly quickly with some sort of excuse, but it was tiring work, and I knew that I couldn’t avoid her forever. At the very least, I couldn’t expect her to keep being lenient about my track attendance if I kept avoiding her.

After only four days back at school, I was at the end of my rope. I had to do something or else I was going to wind up having a nervous breakdown. Not only was school a veritable nightmare, nothing seemed to make me happy any more. It was as if all of the joy and pleasure had been sucked out of my life, leaving behind only a burnt-out shell of guilt and self-loathing. Even the nightmares and mood swings had been better than this. I had to get back to normal.

So, that Thursday afternoon immediately after school, I found myself again looking to Hannah for answers – this time knocking desperately on her front door.

Hannah opened the door on the fifth knock, and before she could say so much as “how-do-you-do,” I blurted out frantically:

“I need you to fix this!”

Hannah blinked bemusedly at me for a moment, then asked with an awkward smile, “Ummmm… fix what, exactly?”

“THIS. Me. Whatever you guys did to me the other night. I think something must’ve… gone wrong with the exorcism or something. I feel even worse than I did before! I can’t stand to be around people. Nothing makes me happy like it used to. I feel guilty and disgusted and scared, all the time, and I don’t know how to make it stop! Please, you have to help me!”

To my shock, Hannah broke out into a wide grin. “Oh, is that all?” she asked.

“Is that ALL? Hannah, I’m going nuts here! I feel like I’m about three seconds away from a nervous breakdown!” A small pang of guilt flashed through my chest for snapping at her, but somehow I was able to dismiss it more easily than usual.

Hannah let the grin fade into a more sympathetic look (though only, it seemed, with an effort). “I know, I know, it can be hard when you start out. It’s scary when you see the world as it really is… mired in sin, rife with corruption, devils hiding around every corner. And one’s sins can be difficult to give up. Sin does offer worldly pleasure, after all; and though it is poison for your spirit, it can leave a void to have it suddenly vanish. I suppose I’m partially to blame here: I thought you might need time to adjust, so I left you alone when you were really only halfway through the process. You’ve abandoned the ways of the world and the paths chosen by your own understanding. Now you must find the path chosen for you by God. There will lie your true happiness, your true purpose and spiritual fulfillment.”

“Yes, okay, Hannah, but how am I supposed to do that exactly?”

Hannah’s grin came back, brighter and more cheerful than ever. “Well, for starters, why don’t you come to church with me tonight?”

I gulped. I was willing to try just about anything to relieve the suffering of the past few days, but… going back to that place filled me with as much fear as going out into the rest of the world. “Tonight?” I inquired. “But it’s a Thursday.”

“We have church services every night!” Hannah replied happily. “Come on! I promise you’ll love it!”

I muttered something noncommittal into the ground, but Hannah just kept pushing and prodding until finally I agreed to go to church with her. I went back to my house to put on some nicer clothes and tell my parents where I was going, then met Hannah on her front doorstep to walk over to the service together. My heart hammered the entire way there, despite Hannah’s friendly chatter and cheerful reassurances. I just couldn’t erase my previous experience from my mind, and a small part of me wondered if going back to the same church might make my situation worse rather than better.

Still, I kept marching towards the church; and when we finally made it to the front doors, I hesitated for only a second before following Hannah into the large, airy building.

The atmosphere was much different than it had been during my exorcism. People were milling about, laughing and chatting casually with each other, and the children were making noise and rough-housing as one expects children to do. A few people turned to nod and smile at me when I came in, but most continued on with their business as though my presence were nothing out of the ordinary.

Hannah led me to a pew about three rows back from the pulpit and we sat down, joining an elderly couple and a young man with his nose in a book of Psalms. For a few minutes, Hannah showed me where the different prayer books were stored and pointed out people that she thought I might know, telling me about their families and their occupations. Then the pastor ascended to the pulpit, and silence fell as swiftly as one might blow out a candle. The congregation filed neatly and quietly into their seats, even the little children, and stared up at the pastor with complete and focused attention.

“My dearest friends, today I shall speak to you on the joys of being among the faithful and of complete and unwavering trust in the Lord. For we see that in all things faith makes a man both blessed and a blessing, giving joy to both the faithful and to those whose lives they touch.” Here, the pastor glanced over at Hannah and me with a gentle smile. “We must be constant in our duty to God, for that is the way to be happy; we must live a life of dependence upon God, for that is the way to be safe; we must keep our fear of God, for that is the way to be healthy. I will read to you now from Proverbs 3:”

“My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments:
For length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee.
Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart:
So shalt thou find favour and good understanding in the sight of God and man.
Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.
Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil…”

I don’t like to admit it, but church services like this usually left me feeling more bored and antsy than anything else. Tonight, though… tonight was different. I could feel the pastor’s words somehow resonate within me, lifting the fog of anxiety and shame from my spirit and making my heart soar as if with divine inspiration. I felt as though there was now a light, a hope in the dark world I had been navigating for the past few days, and with it by my side, everything could be alright again.

“…For the devious are an abomination to the LORD: but his secret is with the righteous.
The curse of the LORD is in the house of the wicked: but he blesseth the habitation of the just.
Surely he scorneth the scorners: but he giveth grace unto the lowly.
The wise shall inherit glory: but shame shall be the promotion of fools.”

The Proverb ended, but the sermon continued, and it continued to uplift me in a way that no service had ever done before. I was positively glowing by the time we reached the hymns, and the music… oh, the music grabbed hold of my heart like nothing else in all the world. We had no pianos or organs or loudspeakers, only our voices: but that was more than enough! We sang Praise to the Lord Almighty, All Creatures of our God and King, All Hail the Power of Jesus Name, Amazing Grace (of course!), and even a few songs I’d never heard of before. I sometimes had trouble following the words and notes in the hymnal, but it didn’t matter. I was swept away by the music: all faults and worries, the future and the past were drowned out by the all-pervading sweetness of the notes.

I never wanted that night to end, but unfortunately it had to. I left the church bubbling with as much effervescent cheer as Hannah, promising myself and everyone who would listen that I would be back the next night… and the next, and the next. Neither Hannah nor I really stopped talking all the way home; we just sort of chatted over one another about how wonderful church was and how glorious God was until we found ourselves at my front door. I said goodbye with a big, silly grin and skipped up to my room, stopping for a moment in the kitchen to grab some leftover pizza from the refrigerator.

However, the moment I stepped into my room, my good mood came crashing down around my ears.

Everything in that room seemed to embody the exact opposite of the simple, virtuous house of worship that I had just left. The shelf of track trophies, monuments to my selfish pride and my desire to be better than others. The racks of tawdry, garish clothes, with plunging necklines and one-inch inseams, probably made by underpaid child laborers in Taiwan. The shelf of novels, purged of Harry Potter but still housing The Lord of the Rings, Twilight, and Lord knew what else. The half-dozen movie posters adorning the walls, covered with scantily-clad actresses and nearly demonic imagery. The old video games piled next to my tiny rabbit-eared TV, which I rarely played but still kept just in case. All bought with my parents’ hard-earned money, money that could have been spent feeding orphans or vaccinating people against malaria. Money that I had taken for granted all my life, used to buy ungodly things that had corrupted my soul!

My mind suddenly exploded with fury and self-loathing, and I launched myself into the room with a hateful cry, ripping down three of my movie posters with one swipe. I then tore down the rest of them, shredding them into tiny little pieces and shoving them into my closet. I ripped clothes out of drawers and off of hangers, wadded them into balls, threw them to the ground and stomped on them, then chucked them on the closet floor with the posters. I brought in the trash can and swept all of my track trophies into it, relishing the sound they made as the marble bases chipped and pieces of plastic snapped off of the tops. I picked up an old GameCube disc and snapped it in two, then another one, then a third. Then I just chucked the rest of the pile into the trash with the trophies and covered the whole mess with notebook paper and tissues so that my parents wouldn’t notice.

By the time I was finished I was panting as if I had just run a marathon. I looked into my bedroom mirror and saw a girl I barely recognized: red-faced, wild-eyed, hair frizzy and disheveled like the Bride of Frankenstein. For a moment, I stared into my reflection’s face, trying to find myself in it. I looked… I couldn’t quite find words to describe how I looked, just that it seemed strange and unnatural.

I shrugged the feeling off with a shudder and turned my back on the mirror, being careful not to look at it again as I cleaned up the mess I had made, changed into my pajamas, and got ready for bed. By the time I was ready to crawl under the covers, my fury had faded, leaving me feeling exhausted and oddly ambivalent about the entire ordeal. I should have been more upset about throwing out all those things I used to love, but at the same time I felt as though a weight had been lifted from me. All I really cared about in my life right now was that I would be able to go back to church with Hannah again; I didn’t want to think about anything else. I fell asleep with that idea fixed in my mind, the strains of Amazing Grace echoing through my subconscious.

The next day of school was still crappy, but it was marginally better now that I had church to look forward to. I felt that I carried something from the previous service with me throughout the day, helping me to better cope with people and tolerate the sin and ugliness that surrounded me. Like a little light that fortified me against the darkness. Still, I fled the school as quickly as I could when the day was over, practically running home to get dressed and ready for church. (I had done a number on most of my clothes the previous night, but there were still a few modest, workaday outfits that had escaped the purge.) The service was fantastic, even better than the last one, and once again I was sorry to see it end.

And that was the way my life went for the next couple of weeks. I would slog mechanically through the school day, trying to keep my mind on Godly subjects and act with grace amidst the corruption that surrounded me. Then, as soon as the final bell rang, I would hurry home and get myself ready to go to church, which seemed the sole source of joy and belonging for me now that I had given up the ways of the world. Once or twice I managed to summon the motivation to go to track practice, just to make sure I didn’t get kicked off the team. But those practices were the most miserable experiences of my week, especially as they forced me to interact with Ruth more often than not. I was beginning to think about quitting track entirely, but I felt guilty about letting my old friends down like that. I had already cut myself off from them almost entirely; weren’t good Christians supposed to be more loving and steadfast than that? Even if my friends were caught up in the sinful ways of the world, weren’t we supposed to be tolerant and forgiving?

I decided to ask Hannah’s advice before I did anything rash.

“I mean,” I told her, trying to explain my complex jumble of emotions as best I could, “I know that we’re not supposed to be shaped by the world, but are we not also meant to be kind and to love our fellow men? I feel like I’ve been withdrawing more and more from all the people that I used to care about… even my parents, who I’m supposed to honor and cherish, I barely talk to or even see anymore. Aren’t we supposed to love sinners and our enemies, to go among them as Jesus did and befriend the prostitutes and the lepers? To judge not our brothers and live peacefully in the world even if we are not of the world? I feel like I’m shunning my responsibilities and hurting those that care about me by cutting myself off like this.”

Hannah pondered that for a moment. “Everything you’ve said is true, Jess, but you’ve got to remember, you’ve only just recently been born again. You’re still naïve and vulnerable to the ways of the world. Jesus could go out and preach the gospel amongst sinners without fear, because he was without sin. The rest of us bear the burden of our own fallen natures, so we have to be careful where we go and with whom we associate, because we might be tempted and seduced away from God. Once your soul is stronger, I’d say you should reach out to people like your old friends and your parents and demonstrate to them the ways of God. For now, though… I would cut yourself of from the corruption and sin of your old life as much as you can. Influences like that could be destructive right now.”

“Okay… I guess that makes sense. So, um, does that mean you think I should quit track?”

“I think that might be wise,” Hannah replied.

So I decided to do it. I met with Ruth and our track coach and in the field house before practice the next day to give them the news.

“I’m quitting the team,” I told both of them, bluntly and without preface.

“What?” responded the coach, blinking owlishly in surprise. Coach Anderson had been a great runner in his time, but he didn’t exactly keep up with the day to day goings-on amongst the team – he left most of that stuff to Ruth’s supervision. I’m not sure he even knew I’d been having problems lately. Ruth, on the other hand, drew her lips into a worried frown, and I thought I saw a spark of betrayal in her eyes before my usual flush of awkward shame compelled me to look away with an involuntary shudder.

“Are you sure, Jess?” Ruth asked, her voice gentle but serious. “I don’t know what you’ve been going through these past few weeks, but we can work on it together. You don’t have to give up all the hard work you’ve done to get where you are.”

“I know,” I replied, my eyes locked firmly on the floor to avoid looking at her. “I’m not quitting because I have to… I’m quitting because I want to. It’s just… not good for me right now. It’s not something that I need to have in my life.”

“Why? Is it too much stress? Are you worried about the state championships? Because you know, it doesn’t really matter if we win or lose. We’re just in this to do the best we can, to improve ourselves and to have fun doing what we love.”

“My reasons are none of your business,” I muttered sullenly into the floor. “I’m just quitting, alright? It’s my life and I can do what I want with it.”

“I’m just worried about you, Jess! You haven’t been yourself lately. I don’t want you to do anything you’ll regret. You used to love track so much; I… I don’t know what’s happened to you. I hate feeling like there’s nothing I can do to help, and maybe there really isn’t, but we’ll never know for sure if you’re not willing to talk to me!”

“I’m fine, alright?” I snapped, beginning to lose my temper. I had worked so hard the past few weeks trying to maintain a serene manner amidst all the depravity and provocation of everyday life.  But Ruth somehow cut through all my defenses merely by looking at me. “As a matter of fact, I’m better than I’ve ever been. I’ve found the path of God now, of living in righteousness, and if that can’t include track right now then that’s my decision to make!”

A look of anger crossed Ruth’s face. “The path of God? Does this have something to do with that new church you’ve been going to? Did they tell you to quit?”

“Nobody told me!” I shouted. “I decided it for myself! Maybe if you came to listen to the Word of God for once in your life, you’d see your way out of sin too!”

“Oh, LIKE HELL am I going to –!”

“Girls, girls, calm down!” Coach Anderson interjected, finally deciding to take control of the meeting from his now squabbling students. “Look, Jess, if you want to quit the team nobody here is going to stop you. But think carefully about what you’re doing before you make any decisions. You’re a fantastic runner, one of the best we’ve ever had, and it would be a cryin’ shame to lose you. You could have a real future in this sport, you know? I’m not kidding. Don’t give up on it without giving it enough thought.”

“I have given it enough thought,” I told the coach tersely. “And I quit.”

I turned and swept out the room before either the coach or Ruth could reply. I fast-walked, then jogged, then sprinted away from the school, fleeing towards the safety and comfort of home and, more importantly, of church. By the time I made it to my front door I was sweaty and panting, and it crossed my mind that I might need a quick shower before I headed to worship. I hung my backpack and my coat next to the door and headed for the upstairs bathroom, but before I could get halfway up the stairs, Dad called to me from the living room.

“Honey? Could you come in and talk to us for a minute?”

My stomach lurched. Talk? With my parents? They almost never wanted to talk! What could have happened that they both felt the need to call me in for a family meeting? I backtracked down the stairs and poked my head into the living room warily.

“Yeah?” I asked. Mom and Dad were both seated on the couch across from the fireplace, looking somber.

“Come in here and sit for a minute, please,” Mom asked, patting the sofa cushion next to her. I slowly crossed the room and sat down in the armchair opposite my parents instead.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Your friend Ruth called us this afternoon,” my dad said in a measured voice. “She said that you’ve quit the track team?”

My face flushed red with anger. Ruth had called my parents?! That was out of line; way, WAY out of line. Who did she think she was?

“Yeah, so what?” I responded, sounding more hostile than I had intended.

“We’re not angry with you, dear,” Mom reassured. “We’re just… worried. Maybe I didn’t take your concerns seriously enough before. Do you still feel like you could use some kind of help?”

“I already have help,” I told them shortly. “I’ve been changing my life for the better; just let me do what I need to do.”

“Look, honey,” Dad took over, his expression looking strained. “I know we’re not always the most… attentive parents in the world, and maybe we need to make some adjustments in our lives so that we can be more involved with yours. But we still love you with all our hearts, and we realize that something hasn’t been quite right with you lately. We just want to help in any way we can to keep our little girl happy.”

“I don’t NEED any more help! Just leave me alone and let me do what’s right!” I shouted, losing my temper for the second time that day. I felt a heavy pang of shame for disrespecting my parents that way, but I ignored it and pushed myself out of the chair, grabbing my coat and heading for the door. I slammed the front door over my parents’ muffled protests and ran down the front walk towards the church, desperately impatient for the joy and guidance that only God could provide. I arrived nearly an hour before the service and paced outside the front doors agitatedly, muttering prayers under my breath and searching my soul for the light of God to guide my path. When the pastor finally opened the doors, I was the first one inside, heading straight for the pews and picking out a book of Proverbs to read while the rest of the congregation got situated.

After a seemingly endless wait, the sermon began, and the pastor’s soft, lyrical words were like a soothing balm to my brain. All of the pain and confusion of the past few hours numbed away, leaving nothing but the warm, joyful glow of divine love to lift my heart. Lulled first by the soft rhythms of the sermon, then by the triumphant notes of the hymns, I forgot all about Mom and Dad and the coach and Ruth. I forgot about track and school and friends and family. I was suffused by the love and the glory of the eternal God, and my troubles and desires were as nothing before His all-encompassing will. I closed my eyes and swayed with the music, feeling the Holy Spirit fill my body and cleanse it of all worldly impurities. In that moment, I felt at one with God, just an extension of His hand, a manifestation of His will. The girl named Jess no longer existed, there was merely the Spirit of Jesus Christ, moving this body as He commanded.

“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!”

Somewhere in the back of my mind, however, I began to notice something wrong. A sound amidst the joyful chorus of voices which did not belong there. At first, it was like the buzzing of a fly, irritating but bearable. But the noise quickly became louder, breaking the trance of the music, and I shifted some of my attention towards identifying the sound. It sounded like… a voice, like someone was shouting. And though I could not make out the words, the voice was drawing closer every second, becoming louder and clearer. A frown creased my brow as I strained my ears to decipher the shouts.

“Jess! JESS!”

Yes, that was what she was shouting. “Jess.” Someone’s name, I suppose. That was kind of rude, interrupting our worship service just to look for someone. Couldn’t it wait until after the service, or at least the end of the hymn? Then again, maybe it was some kind of emergency, I thought charitably. Mustn’t think ill of others…

The voice came closer and closer, pushing through the dense, undulating crowd until it was almost directly next to me. Curious and annoyed, I opened my eyes and turned around to survey the congregation. At the end of my row of pews, a strange girl was pushing her way past the other worshippers, heading straight towards me. Her eyes were locked on mine, and her expression was one of anxiety bordering on panic.

A shiver went down my spine. This strange girl frightened me. Maybe if I just went back to singing, the Lord would drive her away. I turned away and closed my eyes, singing ever louder in the hopes of drowning out her cries. But then a hand grasped onto my shoulder, and my eyes snapped open to see the girl’s face mere inches from mine. Her brow was deeply furrowed, her eyes twin pools of confusion and worry. “Jess!” she repeated, shaking my shoulders gently with both hands. “Snap out of it! It’s me! It’s Ruth!”

As I stared into the girl’s eyes, something clicked back into place in my brain, and my heart leapt into my throat. It was as if I had been floating along somewhere above reality, then forcibly snapped back to Earth like a stretched rubber band. “Ruth?” I asked breathlessly, though I now knew for certain that it was her.

“Yeah,” she answered, seeming equally disturbed. “You scared me for a minute there, Jess. It was like you didn’t know me.”

“I didn’t,” I replied, feeling my body begin to tremble. A deep, existential fear crashed over me like a wave as I realized that for the past several minutes, not only had I failed to recognize Ruth – I hadn’t recognized MY OWN NAME.

“We have to get out of here,” I muttered, glancing around anxiously as the fear began to mount inside me. Most of the congregation was still singing and swaying along with the music, but a few heads were turned in our direction, and in the back of the pews, a large man in black stood up and slowly began making his way towards us. “Right now.

“Sounds good to me,” Ruth agreed, taking my hand and pulling me back the way she had come. The relentless press of bodies around us was almost suffocating as we made our way towards the center aisle. But I kept a firm hold on Ruth’s hand, and she propelled us through the crowd with all the implacable force of a speeding freight train. As soon as we broke into the center aisle we started running, sprinting towards the front doors with every ounce of strength in our lean runners’ bodies. We charged past the parishioners, past the pews, past the man in black just shoving his way by the last person in his row… then we were out the door, flying down the front walk, free and clear in the cold, moonlit night.

Not a word was spoken as we fled from the church that night. We ran holding hands, Ruth leading, me only inches behind. I felt the gentle warmth of her strong, callused hand in mine, heard our footsteps sync up as we fell into pace, the sound of our heavy breaths intermingling in the cool night air. I saw the way her dark hair caught the moonlight and sparkled as if full of tiny stars; the lithe, practiced movements of her muscles as she ran. Not long ago there was a time that I might have dreamed of this, that it might have brought me warmth and happiness during a dark hour.

Now, I squeezed her hand even more tightly in mine and I felt… nothing. Just a raw, hollow emptiness carved in the center of my heart.

And maybe just a little bit sick.

I knew then that I had made the right decision in leaving the church. The fear brought on by my brief amnesia had made me flee, but the emptiness that I felt when I looked at Ruth convinced me that I would never return. I felt as though something very precious was slowly being stolen from me, and I had no idea how much of it I would be able to recover. My memory flashed back on the night that I’d torn apart some of my prized possessions, and I finally found a word to describe how I had looked in the mirror back then.

I had looked possessed.

After what seemed like an eternity of running, we finally made it back to my house. Ruth and I stopped in front of the door and turned to look at each other awkwardly.

“Are you alright?” Ruth asked, her voice soft with concern.

“I think so,” I responded, only able to meet her gaze for brief intervals before glancing away again. “At least, I ought to be alright soon.”

“Do you need me to talk to your parents?”

“No, I think I can handle it.”

“…do you need me to stay with you for a while?”

My body shuddered with something between nervousness and disgust. “No,” I answered a little bit too quickly. “I’d like to be on my own for a while. You know, to think.”

“Okay…” Ruth responded doubtfully. “Just… do me a favor and don’t go back to that church, okay?”

“Amen, sister,” I answered with a nervous chuckle.

Ruth looked deeply into my eyes for a moment; then, before I realized what was happening, she leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead, quickly and softly. Her lips were warm and smooth and left electric tingles where they had touched. I turned around and slid hastily into my house, shutting the door in her face without another word. My stomach churned with some deranged mixture of excitement and loathing. Ruth stood outside the door for another moment, probably staring into the space that I had just left, then turned around and trod slowly back down the walkway towards her home.

I went straight up to my room, shrugging off Mom and Dad’s questions with assurances that I would tell them everything later (when I’d had time to sort out a good lie). And… well, I’ve been holed up in my room ever since.

It’s been about two and a half days now since Ruth and I ran out of the church service, and I still haven’t left my house even to go to school. I’ve talked to Mom and Dad a little bit, managing to convince them that I’m healthy enough not to call the hospital, but distressed enough to warrant locking myself in my room for a few days to sort things out. Truth is, I have no idea where to go from here. The effects of the “exorcism” haven’t worn off yet, you see.

I still derive no pleasure from the things that I used to love; I can’t look at my family, friends, or anything in the outside world without it seeming to ooze corruption. I haven’t experienced happiness or joy since the moment I ran out of the church doors, and there’s not an instant in which I am not tempted to go back just to feel that senseless rapture again. The rational part of me knows why I can’t do that, knows that the rest of the world isn’t as dark and evil as it seems. But my emotions seem to have a mind of their own. I’m desperate to get back to normal, but right now I can’t trust myself to even step out of the house without running back to that accursed church again.

I think I know what my nightmares meant now. I felt lost and alone, with no idea of where I wanted to go in life or why, with a maze of options in front of me and potential failure around every turn. I was tormented by the demons of anxiety, of indecision, of uncertainty and fear and loneliness and worry. So I dreamed of being lost. But now… now I do not dream of anything at all. I am no longer lost; I am a nobody going nowhere, with no past and no future save the mechanical execution of someone else’s desires.

I don’t want to fade back into that haze, where I’m capable of forgetting even who I am. I want to be me again, flaws and all, even if it means wrestling with my plans for the future and struggling to make good decisions. Even if it means that sometimes I’ll fail, and hurt, and even hurt others.

If anyone knows how to counteract what that “exorcism” did to me, please let me know right away! And if there actually were “demons” inside me, and I drove you away looking for an easy answer to my problems… please, please come back to me. You aren’t what I thought you were, and I think I might need you to be whole again. Please forgive me.

And please hurry. I’m not sure how much longer I can stay strong.

“For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.'” – 2 Peter 2:20-22

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