Karen had been spacing out, but when PastorMike said the word demons she started paying attention. She wasn’t a secret Satanist. She liked some aspects of Satanist fashion, but Satanists listened to terrible music.
“They aren’t real demons,” PastorMike was saying. “I mean, guys, god wouldn’t be that literal. When I say demons, I’m talking about a choice. Are you going to listen to worldly music, do the stuff that goes on out there in the world?”
Karen’s best friend Marie sat on the mealy log beside her. Karen and Marie weren’t the kind of girls who worried about log-pulp on their pants. Actually, most of the youth-group girls didn’t seem worried about it. A few of them—Jessica, that one no-name 8th grader, Lauren—put sweatshirts under their shorts (Lauren actually had Todd’s sweatshirt; good looking out, Todd). Karen and Marie were like: cutoff jeanshorts, funky-smelling Army Navy parachute boots that maybe real parachutists died in. Bring it, grossest log and grossest log-larva. We’re not gonna go eeeeeek.
There were Pros and Cons to everything. The ones for the annual Calvary Youth camping trip were like
Pro: Marie; river under certain circumstances; fire once the boys finally get it started
Con: Marshmallow gook smudged on sweatshirt sleeve (stuck there for whole weekend); setting up tents (one of those things, like playing pool or skateboarding, Karen wanted to be good at—ended with bent tent stakes); closing eyes while figuring out what to say; watching boys build fire (watching boys Monty Python swordfight with the firewood); mealy log; Diskman running out of batteries; closing eyes while figuring out what to think; clammy mealy log
She’d been tuning out PastorMike, making her list. But now: demons. Difficult to know if they went under Pro or Con.
PastorMike had a goatee and a cross-and-thorns tattoo; Karen’s parents smoothed their napkins when they talked about him at dinner. Karen had a job, so Calvary Youth Nights were a no-go this summer. She worked at Saxby’s, pretending she knew cappuccinos from lattes. On Sunday nights, she imagined… what? the boys smashing their guitars at the end of worship? dry ice fog during “My God is an Awesome God?” Marie, who worked mornings at the IHOP, swore nothing was different. “He referred to Edward Scissorhands in a talk,” she’d told Karen. “That’s the craziest it’s gotten.”
But demons. Maybe it was significant that demons were in the mix now—the summer between 11th and 12th grade. All these years of everything being the same had built up, like ridges of sand next to the river. Karen wanted current, movement, flood: sediment churned into glittery swirl.
“Guys,” PastorMike was saying. “We’ve all got demons that we’re listening to. But sometimes it’s better to take on the demons we can touch, and see. And hear. And, guys.” He paused. “I’m not talking about my off-key singing.” The Calvary Youth kids laughed—boy-laughs that were basically a quick nod, girl-laughs easing out past lipgloss. Karen laughed with them. Then she realized she’d been holding her breath; laughing pushed the exhale out.
“Seriously, though, guys. What I am talking about is secular music. Everyone has that one album. And you know it doesn’t glorify Jesus. I told the board that I was gonna shake up the Calvary Youth. And I’m here to tell you. Tomorrow night, it’s gonna happen.”
Marie was making a face that other people would call a purse-lipped smile. But Karen knew that look: half mocking, half bring-it. If Karen made that face, she’d look horsily incredulous. Marie had dimples, which made her expression coy. Marie’s eyebrows arched into a snotty hmmmmm? But she could get away with it; her eyebrows were dark, her face pale and unpimpled. Karen had seen this expression a thousand times, over a thousand different Eras—the James Era, the Eric Era, the Making Out with Guy from SAT Prep Era, the Many Philosophies about Making out with Many Guys Era, the Eric Era (redux), the Chastity is Probably Best Era, quickly followed by the Maybe John-Mark but I think Eric Is Interested Again? Era.
Marie didn’t wrestle with demons, but boys were a whole thing for her. Karen had seen Marie afflicted by boys. A few months ago, during one of the Eric Eras, Marie’s parents were out of town and Karen was sleeping over. Marie wanted to hang out with Eric, but he wasn’t calling her back. It was obvious: Eric was with one of those 12th grade sluts. It started with Marie pacing, then murmuring; it ended with her kicking over the cat’s litter box and throwing last year’s yearbook across the room. Karen, stricken on Marie’s kitchen linoleum, thought of that Bible story, the one where Jesus heals the demon-possessed man. Not just one demon: they called the guy Legion, and they couldn’t even chain him down. As a kid Karen imagined Legion as some kind of superhero; the demons would’ve streamed out like hornets—a gazillion of them, buzzing out of his eyes and mouth and ears. Karen always felt bad for those pigs—the ones Jesus sent the demons into. They were just minding their own sloppy piggy business. Next thing they knew, they were plunging down a hill and drowning. Karen tried saying “He’s probably grounded” and “He’s a jerk anyway.” Finally, out of options, she said, “I should pray for you.” Marie splatted whimpering on the floor, said “OK.” They bowed their heads and Karen said, “Lord, I pray that Marie would be free of this,” though she wasn’t quite sure what “this” was.
Now, Marie nudged Karen as PastorMike said, “I’m not gonna force you guys to do anything that you don’t want to do. But I know you guys have CDs and diskmen with you. So just imagine this. We’re on our way home. You’re sitting in the van. You’ve given your CD up; you’ve let the flames take it. And now you know that something–something—is different.”
Karen looked around at the Calvary Youth kids. All of them had been coming on this same camping trip since they were 7th graders. Back then they’d been Amy-Grant-listening lame-os, girls wearing boot-cut jeans, guys with buzz cuts and puffy Starters’ jackets. She and Marie had been the loser-est of all those losers: mom-chosen pink turtlenecks, and if anyone had mentioned alternative music they would’ve asked “alternative to what?” Karen’s thing, this year, was Ani Difranco. There was something about Ani’s toughness—her guitar-swagger, her fuck-you teeth. Marie wasn’t that into Ani; on this point, she and Karen disagreed. Marie preferred the Violent Femmes, the Beastie Boys. Music for driving in cars with guys, yelling lyrics out windows: “Why can’t I get just one fuck? I guess it’s got something to do with luck.” The highway wind in Marie’s hair, turning it tousled, movie-messy, like a Tarantino chick, raging and dead-eyed on a Tarantino highway.
“So think about it. Search your soul and find god out here in nature. And then consider bringing that album tomorrow night. Consider telling the demons they don’t have a hold on you.”
Years ago, Karen had read a testimony kind of like this in Brio! Christian Magazine for Girls. This pastor threw Led Zeppelin in the fire and a beardy demon emerged, warbling at the exact frequencies of “Stairway to Heaven.” This had scared Karen away from non-Christian music till 9th grade, when she and Marie pooled their money to buy a Smashing Pumpkins CD. They clicked in Siamese Dream, and Karen watched its iridescent spin, waiting for the devil-yodel, half expecting a cadaverous head to shimmer from her boombox.
Now, Karen imagined Ani turning the campfire into a whoosh of blue. Everyone would be impressed by the muscular demons that Karen, Marie’s quiet best friend, had packed in her duffle bag. There was something about that figure rearing up, going rawwwhhh with azure jaws. It felt breathless and necessary; demons were something to be grappled with. These days, Karen did most of her grappling with stacks of Saxby’s cups. Maybe something in her was being quietly relinquished—given over to plastic lids, to driving around with Marie and Marie’s guys, to “decaf or regular?”—to the Violent Femmes and, beneath the Violent Femmes, the numbing sound of wheels on asphalt.
Marie grabbed Karen’s hand. She bared her teeth like a pretend demon. “Lock up your precious Ani tonight,” she whispered in a raspy voice.
“Oh please,” Karen said. “I hope someone throws Ill Communication into the fire so I never have to hear it again.” Marie stuck her tongue out.
PastorMike started them off singing “Create in Me a Clean Heart.” The fire burned, ordinary. Ordinary was better, at least for tonight. Karen wasn’t sure how to name that other thing. She did know how to name ordinary though: Marie on a log next to her, Ani CD snug in discman, fire in its fire-pit, all the expected mountain stars above.
During the day the girls split into their cliques. Karen and Marie went on the hiking trail marked Difficult, sometimes with the boys, sometimes without; Becky and her crew sunbathed by the river; Lauren and Jessica found things to be grossed out by. During the school year the girls saw each other in the halls—Karen and Marie loping in their corduroys, Becky bothering her teacher about MLA citations, Lauren and Jessica pretending they didn’t want to go to math so some boy would drag them to the classroom. At school the girls waved, smiled, and didn’t stop to talk. But on the camping trip, they all lay flat on the same ground, looked up at the same tent ceiling. They laughed at the stupidest stuff. Then they laughed at how funny they sounded laughing, and the tent was buoyant, like a little closed-in ship.
“Did anyone else see John-Mark’s face when that one log made that weird popping sound?” Becky asked.
“I think he was sleeping! And then he was like ‘What? Huh? Mom?’ when he woke up.”
“Yeah, I thought the same thing. You know what he looked like? He looked exactly like Scoobie Doo. When he makes that, like, Rouuwwh? face?”
A bunch of girls—Becky’s group mostly—all started going “Rouuwwh? Rouuwwh-Rouuwwh?”
“If John-Mark’s Scoobie Doo then who’s Shaggy?” Lauren said, like she was asking a really deep question.
“Oh wow, no,” Marie said. “I totally got it!” The girls chattered out names like a million tisking crickets. “Shut up!” Marie said, laughing. “It’s… PastorMike!”
“Yes,” said Jessica. “Totally. That jawline.”
“Can you imagine…” Karen began, laughing, her ribs jarring on the ground. “Can you imagine the two of them solving mysteries together? And, like, riding around in some weird little bus? And the demons being like ‘I would’ve gotten away with it. If it weren’t for you kids.’” Why had she brought up the demons? It was like that one time, back at the beginning of high school, when she’d had a crush on Daniel. She was like a cup with holes; his name spurted out everywhere, in jokes and complaints and really dumb poems.
The girls laughed. But the laughing was a little off; it took the shape of a question-mark, raised up there in the darkness. Karen held her breath. When someone finally asked, Karen was surprised that the someone was Marie.
“So, guys,” she said. “Like, that whole demon thing….” Now that it was out there, spoken, Karen wished she’d kept the word to herself, curled between her tongue and teeth. It was just like when she’d told everyone about Daniel: there was the initial rush of excitement, followed by immediate regret.
“Yeah,” Jessica giggled. “I thought PastorMike was supposed to be young and relatable. Not, like…”
In the silence, one girl flicked the metal tab of her sleeping bag zipper and someone else had the sniffles and Marie kept scratching, probably at a mosquito bite. Karen felt her eyelashes close then open then close. She imagined all the other girls blinking too: a bunch of fireflies in a field. It was like this—this quiet rhythmic vigil—at least once each year. Usually when one of the girls murmured a confession. Something about the tent, its fug of hand lotion and river-hair, made it OK for the girls to say stuff, to cry a little and cover the crying with a coughing noise. Confessions were always like: third base/ like, kind of lying on the floor?/ went too far/ tongue but only a little/ his hand sort of on my neck/ not like sex-sex/ a massage but then/ didn’t mean to. It was like the girls had an extensive but super-specialized Thesaurus: so many ways of saying just that one thing.
Karen always stayed quiet during confessions. Maybe her silence made her seem like a lesbian. But she wasn’t a lesbian; she was jealous. Karen would’ve liked for some boy’s hand to hover at the nape of her neck. But, even more than that, she wanted to tell the other girls about it. She’d been hearing Marie’s confessions for years now. When Marie confessed how far she’d gone with Eric, how she loved him even though he was an atheist, she cried, sometimes with huge coughing sobs. Marie looked upward, at the great god-hook above her, lowering, its rust ready to catch the soft flesh of her chest.
Shannon, the quiet girl in Becky’s crew, finally spoke. “Do you guys think maybe it might be true? The demons?”
“I don’t know,” Marie said. “Sometimes I do things and I’m not sure why I do them.”
“But,” said Jessica. “Do you really think it’s your music?”
“I’m not sure,” Marie said.
“Not even demons like the Beastie Boys,” said Karen.
“Oh please,” Marie said. “There is nothing worse than Ani Difranco’s fake-ass spoken-word poetry. At least the Beastie Boys are real rappers, not posers.”
“I don’t know,” Lauren said. “I might do it.”
“Yeah,” Becky said. “I might too. I think maybe high school has made me kind of wordly. Plus, you know, there will be lots of temptations in college. Secular professors and parties and stuff.” Everyone knew that Becky was applying early decision to Princeton; the “parties and stuff” had clearly been an add-on.
“There are some things I really want to change.” Marie’s voice broke a little. “But I don’t know how.” Everyone knew she was talking about messing around with Eric. Karen knew Marie was also talking about messing around with other nameless guys, about how Marie once met a guy at a gas station and said “OK, why not?” But did Marie have to be so dramatic about it, here in the tent? Did she have to act like her thousand-fold confessions were being wrested from her?
“Maybe we should all do it,” Jessica said. “Just, like, to see what god might do?”
“We could make a pact!” Lauren said. Lauren had been really into pacts for as long as Karen could remember. Last year she’d actually proposed a “no hooking up pact”; then she’d hooked up with Todd the very next morning.
Karen hoped Marie would make fun of Lauren. Instead Marie said, “I’d kind of like that.”
“I’m in,” said Becky. “I’ve got some Madonna.”
“Mighty Mighty Bosstones!”
“Backstreet Boys,” and everyone laughed and cooed “Wooooo, Backstreet Boys!” “You’re gonna burn up your boyfriends?” “How old are you anyway?” “Karen hoped that, in the cacophony, everyone had forgotten about her.
“Karen,” Marie said. “What about Ani? That man-hating lesbian deserves the fire of hell. Plus, she can’t even sing.”
Karen pictured Not a Pretty Girl burning, liner notes shriveling with an insidious whine. She felt the extremity, the fire towering into an inferno. She’d be powerless before it, bowing down and murmuring “Yes, Jesus.” She’d finally feel that limp meekness, feel whatever Marie had felt that night, when Karen placed her hands on Marie’s head and said, “Lord, I pray that Marie would be free of this.”
The thing was: when Karen had said it, the words had seemed like a line from a corny horror movie. She’d suddenly wanted to crack up. Now, in the tent, something—some twig—was sticking into her back. The brief imagined thrill of Ani burning immediately drained into this new Con point: Twig in lower back. Karen wanted to be asleep. To be asleep with no dreams, no revelations: no Technicolor devils, no verging flames, no CDs bubbling like boils.
“Sure, guys,” she said. “I mean, a pact’s a pact. Now will you bitches shut up so I can get some sleep? We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
The twig was still poking her. She kept changing positions but it hit right at her kidney. Maybe this meant she should meditate like Jesus in the wilderness. The twig felt like suffering but it was not suffering; it was just an annoyance. Lord, Karen thought, be with… But she didn’t know what completed that phrase. She tried Lord, I ask you… But her prayers turned into
Pro: Flames turning blue would be cool to see; absolute Intensity; pact/these girls are sort of like sisters; can’t argue with demons; better hell than apathy; opposite of “Do you want any cream or sugar with that?”; that Bible verse? how’d it go? if you’re lukewarm I will spit you out?
Con: Actually really liking Ani; bought that album full price not even used; PastorMike is kind of annoying; maybe nothing happens and then what; maybe nothing happens and then everyone will know; (one day—grownup?) swaggering like Ani through a city—sundress and leather jacket, jangling loose-buckled boots
Karen was sure she’d fallen back asleep. But she couldn’t be asleep because if she were asleep she wouldn’t be so pissed about that twig. Maybe it was the tent that was dampering her meditation. So she slipped jeanshorts and her favorite flannel over the long underwear. Her boots were clompy, so she put them on outside.
The trees, high up in their branches, balanced golden shields of light. Karen turned down toward the river, where there was a big boulder she always liked to sit on. Down there, near the river, maybe she could finally pray right. Karen slipped a little, scrambling down the bank. By the time she noticed PastorMike sitting on the far side of her boulder it was too late to scramble back.
“Hi there, Karen. You’re an early riser. Come on up and join me.” Karen didn’t know how to get out of this, how to act like she suddenly remembered something back at the campsite. PastorMike was wearing steel-toed workboots that Karen envied. Down here, with the river’s soft blues reflecting up on his face, he looked like a normal guy. Maybe she was supposed to talk to PastorMike instead of meditating; maybe that was why she’d been awakened early. Maybe she and PastorMike would have a little chat and that chat would end up, surprisingly, in the Pro column.
“That’s quite the outfit.”
“The long underwear used to be my dad’s,” she said as she climbed to the top of the boulder. “This is the way I usually dress. I’d wear this outfit to school.” This was mostly true; she’d fought with her parents over the long underwear plus shorts issue. Eventually they reached a compromise, which meant that they said “No, it’s completely inappropriate” and Karen changed outfits once she got to school.
“Cool,” said PastorMike, shrugging. “So. How do you like working at Saxby’s?”
“How’d you know?”
“The other kids told me. Marie and those guys.”
“It’s a little boring but whatever. It’s fine.”
“Is there anything in particular that you’re saving up for?”
This hadn’t really occurred to Karen. “Not really. College, I guess?”
“You know, Karen,” PastorMike paused dramatically. “You’re a really smart girl.”
“You’re thinking of Becky. She’s the one that’s probably going to go to Princeton.”
PastorMike laughed. “No. I know the difference between you and Becky. I know Becky does well in school. I can tell you’re smart in a different way, though.”
“I’ve never really talked to you before.”
“Yeah. But Frank told me about you. He said you always asked good questions. At least when you were younger.” Karen had liked PastorFrank, even though he only had three main themes to his youth group talks: one, god loves you; two, you should love each other; three, obey your parents. He used Braveheart analogies a lot; somehow Braveheart was always relevant.
“Yeah,” said Karen. “I ran out of questions.” She wasn’t sure if her questions had been answered, but she didn’t tell PastorMike that. She also didn’t tell him it had been easier to stop asking.
“You know,” PastorMike said. “I’ve been meaning to rap with you.” He’d been doing alright, but rap kind of ruined it.
“Yeah. You know, my best friend in high-school was this good-looking dude. All the girls were into him. I always felt just a little bit in his shadow.” Karen realized what PastorMike was trying to talk about. She wished this were her problem. She looked at the pewter-colored river below her. The water was going somewhere.
“Well, anyway. I just wanted to share that with you.”
“OK. Thanks.” Karen knew she could make an excuse and leave. But then she thought about the fire, the burning CDs emitting a Satanic stink, the spunkiest demons making impudent popping noises.
“You know, Karen. You’ve been on my radar. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we both ended up here this morning. I think you’ve got a lot going on. More than just working at Saxby’s.” On my radar. PastorMike wasn’t just rapping—chatting, whatever—with her. He was trying to reach her. She should’ve seen it earlier. This came straight from some instruction manual: first, seem indifferent; next, imply relatability; last, clinch the deal. She’d heard a thousand talks about bringing souls back into the fold; it was weird to realize that she was actually the one being sought. She knew those calculations—lost-sheep math, parable exponents—three, ten, one hundred times more valuable. It was sort of thrilling, when she thought about how important, how singular, she’d suddenly become.
“So,” she said. “Do you really think that our secular music has demons in it?”
PastorMike smiled. “What kind of music do you listen to?”
“I’m really into Ani Difranco.” His face was blank. “People call her chick music.”
“So sort of like Celene Dion?”
“Yeah,” Karen said, letting it slide.
“OK. Well, when I’m talking about—Ani? Difranco?—being demonic, maybe it’s kind of a metaphor. I wouldn’t break it down for other kids like this. But like I said before, Karen, I know you’re smart. Maybe when I say demons I just mean a metaphor for the things that are keeping you from Jesus.”
Karen didn’t see what was so confusing about that. Her first-try SAT score hadn’t been great, but she’d absolutely killed on the analogies, and this was way more straightforward than Oblique is to blank. Still, Karen wanted a straightforward explanation: “Ani is to Demon as Jesus is to blank.” Not that Karen believed PastorMike’s equations. But she liked how neat those two columns were, how they reminded her of the : : on the SAT.
“I haven’t always been a pastor. I’ve seen some pretty wild things out there in the world. I’ve seen some things you wouldn’t believe.” PastorMike looked at her like she was a particularly unique sheep—one with prize-winning teeth, or extra-sad eyes, or whatever made a sheep special. She knew that she was supposed to ask him about what he’d seen—bloody pentagrams? terrible things done to children? She was a little curious, but she didn’t want to fall into his baa-baa script.
“I’m just saying,” he said. “There are more things in heaven and earth.” Karen tried to remember which apostle that was. Then she placed it: Hamlet, not the Bible.
“But… I’m not gonna tell you one way or another. I think you should trust Jesus. Give your Ani Difranco over to him.’”
“OK, cool,” she said. She suddenly didn’t want to be there.
“Sure thing, Karen. Any more questions for me? Hit me with your best shot.”
“No, I’m good. Actually, I’ve gotta go to the—you know—privy.”
“OK. Cool talking with you. I hope I sorted some stuff out for you.”
Karen scrambled down the boulder. She tried to grasp a Pro or a Con, but everything was a mushed-up muddle. Metaphor. The demons shrank to nothing; they rattled like clear cellophane, the kind that CDs came in. That cellophane melted, deflated till it was a little plastic scribble. Empty and normal and stupid and dull: a thing with nothing inside.
Back home, where there were parking lots and sidewalks, skateboarding was the big thing. Skateboarding usually went like: a boy yelling “Hey check out this Ollie,” then falling immediately on his ass, then getting up as if it hadn’t happened. Skateboarding was like Monty Python clomping and fire-building: guys only, girls watching. Marie was the only girl to ever get on a skateboard. She placed her Chucks on the board—“Like this? Is this right?”—and John-Mark or Daniel or Karl held her hand. Marie would wobble, go “Whoa! I don’t want to fall!” and the guy would tighten his grip: sometimes on her arm, sometimes on her hip. The boys never asked Karen if she wanted to try, but sometimes she imagined buying a skateboard and practicing alone. She’d be in a parking lot, tilting the board with a casual sneaker. Her Ollie would burst brash and uncaring. Ani was always the soundtrack—the rowdy off-key choruses, the self-assured growling low notes.
Marie and Karen stood at the edge of the clearing. Marie linked her arm in Karen’s and whispered “Let’s take a walk.” That morning, Karen had left PastorMike and gone back to the tent to grab her toothbrush. Most of the girls were still asleep, but Marie’s sleeping bag was empty. Marie wasn’t in the bathroom and wasn’t at the picnic table in the clearing. Karen didn’t see Marie till the end of breakfast, when Marie breezed by and grabbed a granola bar. “Hey girl,” she’d said. “The guys are going on this super-hard hike.” Karen wasn’t really in a hiking mood, but if the boys had actually invited Marie that meant that they had to go. So they went on the hike: the boys swinging on a vine, Marie swinging on the vine and John-Mark catching her, Karen standing on the slope, kicking leaves. Then they got back, changed into swimsuits and jumped in the river. Marie was on John-Mark’s shoulders, begging Karen to get on Daniel’s so that they could play Chicken, but Karen refused, even though it meant ruining the game. Now, Karen and Marie were walking the perimeter, circling the boys.
“Where were you this morning?” Karen asked. She knew the answer, but she was supposed to be curious.
“Oh, Karen,” Marie said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Karen eyed the fire. The flames were low but glowing, curled like question marks. “I hooked up with John-Mark. Even after everything we were talking about in the tent.”
“So do you like him?”
“No. I don’t know. Maybe. He’s just, like, really nice to me. And that counts for something, right?”
“I didn’t plan it or anything. I just, like, had to pee this morning. You weren’t there when I got up, so I thought maybe you were in the bathroom. I was going to check the bathroom and John-Mark was coming out of his tent. We just started talking, about college and stuff. And then he asked if I wanted to walk through the meadow. And, I mean, I knew he was gonna kiss me.”
“OK. Did you guys talk about it or anything?”
“No. We didn’t do too much talking.”
“Making out with him was kind of hot though. Remember that other time, when we made out before? I felt like he was kind of awkward, like he didn’t know what he was doing. But this time he did a couple things that were nice. And kind of sexy.”
“So, I don’t know. I’m still gonna burn Add It Up though. That album is, like, a symbol of bad things in my life. The past. Eric and everything. Then I guess I’ll see what happens with John-Mark, after that.”
“That sounds good.”
“Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“I just said it was.” Karen was surprised by the strangled voice that came out of her.
“Are you OK? You’re not mad at me, are you?”
“No,” Karen sighed. “I’m—I don’t know? Tired? I got up really early this morning.” It wasn’t just being tired; it was also
Pro: Meadow-grass shining like animal pelt; hard-on perked in baggy skater jeans; pressing past the edge of sin; flicker of chickadee wings; sin aka this again; lord I am a hopeless sinner; lost sheep = best sheep; un-bra-ed breasts pressing on his chest; god help me; god save me; confession on the schedule—tonight, right after dinner; god help me, hot as demon-breath, god save me
Con: Sunrise light in eyes; nipples spiking under t-shirt; this again; this again and always; Christian boys = not quite as exciting; delivered to the demons; maybe not worth it?; gain the world but lose your soul; just hard when so many guys like you; never did brush teeth this morning; just hard when so many guys want you;
Karen wished she had, mostly so that she could see the laugh snatched off Marie’s lips. And maybe so she could finally be the one to say: hook up, lips on neck, don’t know what I was thinking, lord forgive me, please forgive me.
“Oh Karen. I wish I was more like you. It must be so easy for you to follow god. I mean, except for your man-hating lesbian music.”
The demon would look a little like Ani: rearing up into tough-girl stance, sucking the Calvary Youth into her whirlwind of remorseless lust. The demon would laugh—shimmering, irreligious—and look straight at her. “Karen,” it would say. “You. Karen.”
“Guys!” PastorMike yelled. “Listen up!” He had climbed up on the picnic table.
The boys paused mid-gallop. Lauren looked up from braiding Jessica’s hair. “We’re gonna come together in about ten minutes. If you’ve got something that you want to give over to the lord, now’s the time to go get it. This. Is. It.”
“This is it,” Marie said, in an exaggerated PastorMike voice, laughing. But there was something else—a little tremor in her voice, a widening in her eyes. “Ani’s about to end up where she belongs. In hell.”
And there it was: that other thing, that other feeling. Karen was scared but she wasn’t scared of demons. The other thing, though—that scared her. It felt a lot like boredom—with Marie’s confessions, with PastorMike’s “this is it,” with the boys and their boy-jokes, with fires and stars and meadows and swimming in the river. The problem was: boredom wasn’t even really a feeling. The problem was: boredom felt a lot like feeling nothing at all.
Karen was surprised to see so many CD cases: Metallica and the Backstreet Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and one inscrutable MC Hammer (Todd’s; maybe a decoy? Nirvana album hidden in his bag?). Karen ran her finger around the plastic edges of Not a Pretty Girl.She wondered about the fiendish smoke that would come off all those CDs, and had PastorMike thought through the environmental implications, the fact that the park service might not be thrilled about this?
“OK, guys,” PastorMike said. “It’s easy to sit here and sing ‘Create in me a Clean Heart.’ But in order to have a truly clean heart, we have to make sacrifices. Is there anyone who’s willing to testify? That person will rap first, so god knows where their heart is with this.” Karen saw PastorMike look right at her; she felt like quite the pricey piece of mutton.
Marie was sitting on the log next to Karen, wearing her favorite ripped-up jeans. John-Mark was sitting next to Marie. His hand was near Marie’s on the log, pinkie finger inching over. By the end of the night they’d be holding hands.
“Who among you will be the first to cast aside your demons? Who will pursue a fuller walk with Jesus?” The guys looked down, made phlegmy ahems. No more fire-making bravado, no more “wafer-thin mint!”, no more fart-joke kookiness. They shifted in their seats, having emotions, having thoughts. The girls all suddenly found something interesting on their CD covers—a smudge of price-tag stickiness, a chip in the plastic. They looked around at each other. The pact was suspended between them: a fragile geometry, lines spun out of glass.
“Come on, guys. I see you have your CDs here with you.” No-one moved. The guys, the girls: they were all inarticulate as the river, all feeling stuff. Karen thought of Legion. Had he been brought to Jesus, maybe even against his will? People, it seemed, were always being brought to Jesus. In all that sting and teem of demons, how did he even know what he wanted?
“I’ll do it,” said Marie. She held the Violent Femmes CD above her head, looking brave and extreme, like that time she’d climbed the campsite’s tallest tree and yelled down at the boys, calling them pussies. “So, um, how does this work, exactly?”
“Thank you, Marie,” said PastorMike. “You’re an example to everyone here. Tell Jesus what you need to be delivered from. And then you’re going to snap your CD in half, and place half of it in the fire. Less mess that way, guys.”
Marie sauntered up to the fire, boots clanking, auburn hair rippling. “Um, hi guys. I’m Marie,” she laughed. “That’s stupid. I know you guys know me. Anyway, I just. I’ve done some stuff in the past few years that I’m not super-proud of. I know everybody thinks I’m kind of, like, tough. But I’m not strong at all. Maybe it’s like these demons, or whatever you want to call them, are holding me back.” Her tears shone molten in the firelight. “I don’t know. I—this guy, Eric from school, got me into the Violent Femmes. And he kind of messed me up. So I’m just. I just want to be free.”
PastorMike gave Marie a hug. “Guys, let’s thank Marie for her honesty here. Now, everyone should be aware that this next part is gonna get a little crazy. You might see some really wild stuff here.” Marie’s biceps tightened as she snapped the CD in half. She was strong, always fake-sparring with boys. Her muscles invited squeezing, appraising: “Hey, tough girl.” Marie took a breath. The Violent Femmes went into the fire—sharp, dangerous, a quick iridescent thrust.
“Thank you Jesus!” cried PastorMike. And Marie fell to her knees, plummeting in front of the fire. Before Marie went down, though, Karen glimpsed her face. There, in Marie’s face, Karen saw something she wasn’t able to recognize. Marie looked more beautiful than she’d ever looked before, as if each of her features had been gilded. Actually, it was exactly that: the beauty of a statue, cast immutable, entirely blank. It could’ve been called sadness, that expression. Karen was an expert on Marie’s sadness, but this wasn’t Eric-sadness or SAT-guy-sadness. This was new: totally inaccessible, sheened by an unknown ecstasy.
“Guys,” said PastorMike. “Come up here and lay hands on Marie. Let’s shepherd our sister through, strengthen her fight against these forces of darkness.” The girls—Becky, Jessica, all of them—tumbled to the front. All those girls: their ka-billion pillow fights, their midnight chit-chat floating up to the tent ceiling. The boys rushed up too. Their dopey joking was totally gone; they were ready to start being men. John-Mark didn’t have to be asked twice; he’d been waiting to lay hands on Marie since 7th grade.
Karen knew she should feel something. This was the moment she’d been waiting for—ever since PastorMike had first mentioned the word demons, maybe even before that, back when she’d asked PastorFrank all those questions, back when she used to close her eyes and sing “Create in Me a Clean Heart,” back when she wished, so much, for guilt or joy or any kind of feeling. Karen knew she should be joining the rest of the Calvary Youth, placing her palms on Marie’s back.
But there was something in her sternum, this rawness or tickle. She couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. It was like she’d swallowed a bunch of fingernails. The itchy feeling in her lungs got worse and worse. Karen opened her mouth and this weird little sound escaped. Half-choke, half-bark. It was laughter. Karen was cracking up. She didn’t even feel bad about it. Her laughter wasn’t maniacal. It wasn’t the mwa-ha-ha that she’d imagined coming out of Legion; it wasn’t the oink-y giggles of those poor pigs. It was bright like the light in church when she was little; it was bright like relief.
All the Calvary Youth were busy laying hands on Marie. Karen let them do it. She let the guys—John-Mark, Daniel, the rest of them—have this purpose. This was a good script, a parable-script—not at all funny, but very important. And she let the girls take this responsibility; they should think about the times they’d passed Marie in the hall, the times that they’d listened to whispered words—slut, weirdo, bitch. Maybe those girls—Becky, Jessica, the rest of them—hadn’t said those words themselves; but they hadn’t disagreed. No-one thought about Karen, and that was fine. She slipped away from the fire.
As the cool air of the forest took over, the raspy dizzy feeling went away. Most of Ani’s songs were about some kind of leaving. Ani left with her guitar in her hand, she left without her underwear, she left without saying goodbye. Karen, on the other hand, wasn’t going far. She’d wake up and eat the Sunday morning special breakfast—eggs, and sausage links for the kids who got up early enough. She’d ride home and listen to Amy Grant on the van’s CD player. Marie and John-Mark would hold hands, and Becky would sleep, and everybody would pretend they were actually into lyrics like “I’ll be your shelter in the rain/ Help you find your smile again.”
But now she was down by the river, clambering onto her boulder. In the dark, with no boys watching her, Karen was glad for her boots, for those tough-girl military treads. PastorMike wouldn’t come looking for her; he’d already paddocked up his lost sheep. Maybe Marie was the blue-ribbon he’d been trying for all along. One hundred, one thousand times the worth. Karen wondered, then, about how Legion was appraised. What algebra determined the cost of a soul? What was so bad about being a diffuse and droning self?
The river was quiet: current, static, a nothing background noise. The words Leads me by still waters popped in Karen’s head. Not the rest of it. No pastures, no sheep. Just still waters: neutral, neither good nor bad.
Karen knew, right then, the kind of woman she’d end up being. She would go to an average college and a great grad school, and she’d stop going to church and then eventually she’d walk into a church one Sunday, because why not? She’d live in an apartment, and that apartment would be in a city. By city she didn’t mean New York; no, a more manageable city—Portland, Atlanta, Houston. The apartment would be all sun and glass: shine on smooth white surfaces. She wanted a duvet—she’d slept under one once, at a hotel. No sheet or anything, just the duvet’s soft crinkly billows. She’d pour herself a coffee, thick and spicy-smelling. There was a man, too, and she’d pour some coffee for him. But that man’s stuff didn’t stay in her apartment. When Karen thought of the man she saw herself standing in the doorway, holding open the industrial steel door, saying “Maybe I’ll see you later.” It was a life of subtraction: chrome countertops, linen curtains. The whole place, on some days, would feel like a remainder. The only sound would be her music, which practically speaking probably wouldn’t be Ani, but would be whatever she felt like listening to.
It would be OK up there, on the building’s highest floor, surrounded by sky. It would be quiet and solitary. It would be blue, and weightless, and kind of like faith.