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.
Karen and Marie weren’t the kind of girls to bring real pajamas on a camping trip. This was because they didn’t believe in real pajamas. No imbecilic satiny stuff for them; no heart-print flannel, nothing pink. The more they looked like men from frontier prairies, the better. Marie had scored an actual union suit—mustard yellow—for the trip; Karen had regular long underwear. “These were my dad’s,” she whispered to Marie. “Back in the 70s. Isn’t that crazy?”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.”
Karen woke up hot. The long underwear was way too warm when the sun hit the tent. She didn’t move. The other girls slept, their breathing scraping the air. It was good like that. If someone was awake, she was being cool, faking sleep just like Karen was.
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 terrible at praying. She wasn’t praying like Jesus; she was praying like Legion. Or maybe she was praying the way Legion did, after he’d been drained of his demons—after the pigs became the demons and then became dead. What was it like for Legion when he wasn’t Legion anymore? Maybe he got bored. Maybe he missed his papery hive, those interlocking chambers where the demons used to hum. Maybe he forgot about Jesus and worked a lot. He could finally hold down a job so maybe he picked up extra hours to make up for lost time. And what did people call him, since he wasn’t Legion anymore—since he was just one, or maybe sometimes, on some days, even less than one?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.