by Sandra Yauch Benedetto
Renea was tallying up the money she’d spent on exorcists when she heard the elevator gate clatter open in the hallway. The out-of-pocket total was $17,683.21, because even after meeting her high deductible she had to fight with insurance to get “elective” services covered. On the plus side, she had just enough years in her work life left to rehabilitate her retirement savings. There was a knock at the door, and three more in even succession.
Renea froze. If I don’t move, they’ll go away. Silence strummed a hollow chord in the echo chamber of her head. I will win if I keep still. She was six years old again, hiding in a coat closet at her grandparents’ house, rationing woolen Pall Mall air, so that nobody could hear her breathing. Her brother should be onto another part of the house to seek their cousin, who would be giving himself away with giggles by now. Tension stretched taut between the decades. She waited for the sound of victory in the resigned retracing of footsteps.
Instead, a man’s voice called out, Hello, Mrs. Holten? Are you there?, and Renea was again at her kitchen table, with an abiding understanding that win-lose is a false dichotomy. To the door she must go. A familiar starched navy on the other side of the peephole foreshadowed what would come next. Despite knowing at the first knock that the presence in the hallway was yet another outgrowth of the shape-shifter that possessed her daughter, dread dropped like a cannonball through her body. It tore past her clamoring heart, gutted her viscera, and plowed through the floorboards.
“What is it?” Renea asked as she opened the door.
Officer Aquino of the SFPD presented his badge and introduced himself. Placid expression, even tone, an exhalation of ennui. Whatever he’d set out to prove twenty years ago had already been sufficiently documented, uncontested, and filed. Renea waved him in for the requisite inventorying of her studio apartment. Nothing about her decor signaled that a devil had been spawned in the room — not the misshapen couch, the cheaply framed print of Dali’s Old Age, Adolescence, Infancy,a depressed spider plant hanging in the corner, or the cluttered array of candles and totems on her TV stand.
“We’re not going to press charges, but I wanted you to be aware of the situation.” Officer Aquino’s eyes finally met hers. “You might want to tell your daughter that you have to live here, you don’t want her messing with your neighbors.”
So. Casey had attempted to steal a package from the lobby. It wasn’t the gravest sin she had committed since the fiend took up residence in her body, not even close. Apparently, the sister of a woman who lived in the building had held open the door for Casey, unaware that tenants were under strict orders from the landlord to never let in people off the street. Casey’s depraved mien and shadowy movements as she slithered along the mailboxes caused the women to become suspicious. They called the landlord, who checked the security camera in time to see Casey hauling out a large box. Officer Aquino apprehended her two blocks away from the building.
He sequestered Casey in the patrol car before delivering the box to its intended recipient, a divorced dad in his thirties named Derek. When Officer Aquino filled him in, Derek said,Oh, Renea on 5’s drug-addled daughter? Nah, just tell her to get some help. Had Renea known this, she would have laughed. Derek’s limited imagination couldn’t fathom the hours she spent unearthing reputable exorcists, weary but determined to keep digging, tolerating their musky fresh-from-the-earth zeal and piling up nothing but debts and resentments.
The first exorcist was recommended by a nurse at the women’s clinic where Renea worked as Office Manager, whose niece suffered from the same affliction as Casey. He balked at the last minute, citing a conflict because he was romantically interested in Renea. He did not in fact want to date her, but believed Casey’s demon to be irrevocably entrenched and was loath to add another failure to his portfolio.
The second exorcist was a frizzy-haired baby boomer who wore her reading glasses on a chain and rubbed stockinged feet together under her desk. Her business card read Demon Management Specialist in an all-caps gothic font. She was more fixated on Renea than Casey, to the point where Renea left mid-session, grabbing her daughter and shouting, This is not a two-fer! We’re done here!
The third exorcism, conducted by a team of experts in a facility in Oakland, was too slow-moving. The preliminaries dragged on for weeks, as if one needs to become better acquainted with the soul-sucker that is squatting in one’s body before kicking it the hell out. And the jargon, my god. Incubus this, succubus that, because sex must be at the root of everything. Not that these people condemned primitive sexual desire; they worshipped it. In Casey’s case, dysfunctional sexual relationships were a red herring. Renea could have told them as much during the initial consultation. Reservations aside, Renea would have seen the treatment through since it was likely their last shot, but Casey was expelled after threatening to use the crucifixes on the exorcists in what they described as an obscene desecration of their process.
There was no need to tell Officer Aquino about all that. After he left, Renea prepared for bed. She pictured her daughter grappling with the package, hurrying down the street to wherever she was going. What was the plan? She imagined Casey sitting in the police car, worrying a hangnail or biting skin off her lower lip. What was in the box? The nature of the contents might render the petty crime either more pathetic or more forgivable. Consider Grandma’s binders containing decades of genealogy research versus five thousand pamphlets of fascist rhetoric. It was not inconceivable that Derek was a fascist. He smoked cigars sometimes on the roof. Maybe it was a humidor in the box. Useless.
An hour after falling asleep, Renea jerked awake, said aloud, Are you OK?to nobody, and gaped at the ceiling fan until she registered that it wasn’t Casey as a baby suspended in a swaddling blanket from the ceiling. Usually during these middle-of-the-night awakenings, Renea hallucinated spiders descending on indestructible threads from the ceiling. The immediate panic and protracted confusion were unsettling.
She couldn’t fall back asleep. The cool pressure of a gel mask she found in her drawer didn’t help. At the intersection of her roving mind and the pliable midnight hour, her third eye pushed play on a reverse age progression of her daughter. Starting with Casey now, at twenty-three, tall and thin, eyes too big to hold the absence of feeling, stringy dishwater hair. A limp ballerina doll that had been washed too many times with dark colors. One that on occasion was animated by demonic possession, during which her eyes became radiant and hungry and her manic smile would devour the hopes and memories of everyone in the room. As frightening as that could be, worse were the glimmers of self-awareness and contemplation in Casey’s expression. Those invariably turned out to be the work of the master manipulator, that tricky shitfuck thief that inhabited her.
Renea rewound to see Casey as she was in middle school, the age when girls lose confidence and the lights behind their eyes dim intermittently. They are on the cusp of something wonderful or terrible, like being at the top of a gaping roller coaster. The adults in their lives are weirdly absent after so many years of being constantly present. Either that or they’re waving inanely from below, oblivious to the potential dangers of the impending plunge. Friends are on parallel but separate tracks. Some will crash, some will soar. There’s Casey, smiling nervously as the ride plummets, bright, anticipating.
That must be when the devil saw its opportunity. It knew that Casey would never be so vulnerable as she was then, alone and suspended between two worlds. Renea had tried unsuccessfully to pinpoint a time and place of entry, but one of the many things she’d learned about demonic possession was that it wasn’t necessarily a cinematic, violent overtaking. It could be an insidious creep with periods of latency. In fact, it took Renea longer than it should have to identify the demon as such, and only then because the imp had carelessly left some noxious paraphernalia lying around. Naming her adversary was half the battle, after which she drew up plans to wage war. No more pleading heart-to-hearts with a creature that has no love or empathy. The exorcists were supposed to bring the big guns, but they were not leading her out of this quagmire as hoped. Who would help save her threadbare baby?
Renea skipped back to the early days, when her daughter was solid and intact, not the flickering phantasm she’d become. Toddler Casey absorbed everything in her orbit, her gray eyes like puddles that reflected or concealed, depending on the light. Her fine hair curled at the ends. She’d been curious and affectionate, by turns silly and solemn, with a stubborn streak that had Renea biting her lip daily. During her first few years, Casey and Renea spent all of their time together. Renea could recall the moment she fully realized that they existed as two distinct people. Obviously she knew that, but she hadn’t feltit with atom-splitting physicality until one day after Casey had turned three and was setting up a picnic in her bedroom for Harry Elephante and Madeline and tiny glass pig. She was absorbed in the task of arranging, moving in accordance with her own desires, as opposed to being held or placed or guided by her mother. Renea stood watching from the hallway, struck by the thought that her daughter’s mind was becoming, and maybe always had been, unknown to her.
Renea tossed the sleep mask aside and got up to refill her water glass. In the night-light cast by the open refrigerator, her feet shone cadaver-like on the linoleum. She thought about the apartment they lived in with Casey’s dad and how she used to check on a sleeping Casey every night and how, as she quietly shut her daughter’s bedroom door, she would take her mind to the brink of the unthinkable before shutting it down with a final resolution, I would die. She would not want to live if she lost this girl, the center of her universe. Then, having indulged this darkness, this warped fantasy of abductors, viruses, freak accidents and men who never learned how to cry, she could go to bed knowing that Casey was tucked in, safe, at home.
When Casey was older, after the divorce but before the demon had a foothold, their favorite thing to do together on weekends was take the ferry to Angel Island to walk around the deserted barracks. There were no careless drivers to watch out for, no huddled reminders of how forgotten and unreachable a person can appear. Sometimes Casey confided in Renea, after they’d been walking awhile and each step on the insular loop made everything feel inevitable, including a renewed closeness between them. Renea could still feel the weight of Casey as she leaned into her on a bench overlooking the bay one clear January afternoon, their shimmery city winking at them from across the frigid water. Casey wiped away tears before they had a chance to fall and professed to never want to speak to her best friend again. Walking back to bed, Renea breathed in, remembering. The scent of Casey’s shampoo and skin mingled in her nostrils for a split second of reclamation.
She climbed back into bed and eyed the ceiling fan. Now that her pupils were adjusted to the darkness she could distinguish each blade and felt foolish that she’d been tricked earlier. Yet, the terrible feeling that she hadn’t been able to rescue her imperiled infant persisted. She wasn’t sure she had the mental fortitude to continue revisiting the past, but her traitorous insomniac brain chose to brand itself with image upon image upon image. Grimy bathroom walls airbrushed in blood. Crumbled pieces of tooth found on, not under, a pillow. Rainwater running like the river Lethe through warped streets where the demon sought oblivion.
Renea continued with the last time Casey had visited her, in the fall. Renea buzzed her up and greeted her guardedly across the anti-halo that darkened the space between them. Casey showered, ate a hamster-sized snack, and fell asleep on the couch in a sunspot. The light gave the illusion of restoring a healthy glow to a complexion that had begun to resemble potato skin. Her breathing was so shallow that Renea put her hand in front of her nose to make sure air was going in and out. She wondered for the hundredth time how to extract her foe while Casey slept. There weren’t any viable options. Coaxing was worse than ineffective, it seemed to rile up the demon. The use of implements risked harming the host, and anyway, Renea wasn’t sure where exactly it hunkered down. That’s why she’d expended so much effort on exorcists. It seemed to be the only way.
After the sun had slid off the couch and into the corner, Casey woke up asking in a voice still sticky with sleep where Sasha was. Sasha the cat had succumbed to kidney failure a few years before. In spite of herself, Renea wondered if Casey’s question was reason to hope, a tiny crack in the demon’s scabrous skin.
Renea had spent years treading over the same recriminations and fears, furrowing her brain with the question of how exactly she had failed Casey. It boiled down to two possibilities: she’d loved her daughter too much or too little. Now, on this night not unlike many that had come before, it became clear that her reasoning was flawed. She had fallen for another illusory choice. She loved Casey enough. It was impossible to love a child too much. The question was, how had she loved her? I would die. Three words skulking in the fog as she closed Casey’s bedroom door every night.
A cry caught in her throat. That was it, then. All along, Renea had stockpiled worry as a means of fortifying their castle, so they’d be ready for whatever calamity the world threw at them. But worry was corrosive. It was her fault their castle became porous, with thousands of tiny holes for the invader to seep through, and now it was crumbling.
She flew to the bathroom, rummaging through the standalone medicine cabinet she kept in a corner. Pepto Bismol, ibuprofen, band-aids, aloe vera, hydrocortisone cream, no, no, no. There were no potent pharmaceuticals, lest the possessed one was on the prowl. Cotton balls, hydrogen peroxide. Maybe? Keep looking. Syrup of ipecac! Disregarding the brittle warning label, she removed the cap from the brown glass bottle and drank until it was gone. Take that.
What to do for the next thirty minutes until the ipecac did its job? She thought about chasing away the bitter taste with a glass of wine, but wanted to savor her enemy’s demise. Besides, Pinot Noir might not be a good look once she started throwing up. She could get dressed, but it was 4 a.m. and what was appropriate attire for a self-induced exorcism, anyway? Wielding a symbolic instrument couldn’t hurt. No crosses, please, not that she owned one. She scanned her TV stand and decided upon Casey’s dusty glass pig.
She didn’t have to wait the full half hour. The expulsion started eight minutes after she downed the bottle and she spent the next fevered hour hunched over the toilet in a litany of rank purification. Renea gloated at the indignity of the demon’s exit — all of her tremblings, pits, and shivers, all the wrong what ifs, backward glances and aborted plans, sucked down into the literal gutter. Outside, the city sparkled. Sirens heralded ninth hour salvations. Tonight, there would be a winner and a loser. Her demon, that had been living in her bowels like undetected cancer, biding its time, feeding on her cynicism and fear, was about to be expunged forever. Only after fixing this could she help Casey. Christ, she thought, that Grandmama Addams exorcist actually knew what she was talking about.
Spent, Renea lay on the tiled bathroom floor, glass pig in hand. Desperate to remain undiscovered, knees pulled up to her chest and upper back rubbing against her grandpa’s scratchy coat, Renea heard a crescendo of sirens. Something terrible was happening to somebody right now and here she was, alone. How quickly her fervent desire to remain hidden had twisted into an urgent need to be found. She unfolded the accordion door and peered out. She expected her brother to be on the other side of it. Instead, she found him with their cousin playing jacks on the kitchen floor. They hadn’t even been looking for her.
Casey was somewhere nearby. She’d been in the building mere hours earlier. The demon slipped up by permitting her to get this close to Renea for the first time in months. Its hold on her is weakening. Renea’s own demon disgorged, her stomach felt sublimely vacant. Come back to me, sweetheart. I know what to do. You invite your friends and arrange the picnic and everything will be wonderful. We will learn how to be brave.
She slept. As the sun came up, the sparkling crown of the Bay Bridge and the halo of Coit Tower dissipated. Alcatraz materialized as a poignant chiaroscuro on the water. The green parrots of Russian Hill squawked their good mornings. The sound of the buzzer penetrated her sleep.
Sandra Yauch Benedetto is a Chicago-adjacent mom, sometime teacher of high school students, and perpetual seeker of sunshine. She adheres to science and her dog’s gaze. She likes to write short things.