All the Other Demons

[The abject] is simply a frontier, a repulsive gift that the Other, having become alter ego, drops so that the “I” does not disappear in it but finds, in that sublime alienation, a forfeited existence.

—Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection


A week after our vacation in a budget beach house, when summer lost its promise and turned rank and wild, vines snaking up from the sewage-scented patch of swamp behind our house, a censored version of The Exorcist was scheduled to air one Primetime Saturday. The previews sent demonic currents through our house, inspiring our dad to hiss and spit, faking possession, attempting to build up to the terror, our initiation into true horror. We were old enough to finally watch it, he said—the twins ten, me twelve. Our baby brother Cabbage caught the fever too, running through the house screaming, the ex-sa-sis is comin’, shrieking when he heard the preview, the dark croak of Regan spewing from one of our tvs: the grainy black-and-white relic the twins had scavenged from a shut-in’s roadside trash; the console color Zenith we’d scored from Granny Mab.

That summer I grew cystic breast buds. That summer Old Testament thunderstorms ripped through our shit town at least twice a week. That summer our mother cut her gleaming black hair into a no-nonsense pixie cut, hissing fuck beauty when Dad told her she’d made a terrible mistake. That summer our father, a high school teacher with months on his hands, smoked a hundred cigarettes a day and splashed Jim Beam into his coffee most afternoons, nattering on about the Mad Monk Gregory Rasputin, Fighting Dick Anderson of the Confederate Army, and Young Merlin—the scaly slippery beast of his novel-in-progress, with which he wrestled every day—the novel that kept him up at night.

We were all twitchy from too much caffeine—sweet tea with two cups of Dixie Crystals sugar, Mountain Yeller and Mr. Pig—and the twins had started scavenging Dad’s cigarette butts, smoking them back behind the shed where spooky clouds of mosquitoes floated up from the creek. I stole my cigarettes straight from the carton, entire packs that my parents didn’t miss, and slipped out to the magnolia tree to smoke. Our plump Boykin spaniels scratched up the grass to cool their bellies in damp dirt. Little Cabbage, obsessed with digging to the Devil, was always squatting in Superman Underoos, hacking at the earth with a rusted trowel. The twins yodeled in the treetops or fought each other with the boxing gloves Dad bought them so they wouldn’t break each other’s noses. Inside, our enormous father stomped around the house, filling it with his moods, while our tiny mother played solitaire, smoking her share of Dorals.

The Devil was what brought us all together. Whenever an Exorcist preview came on, we huddled in the den with its shag carpet and dark wood paneling, marveling at the astonishing vileness of Regan, her face cracked and blistered, pea-green vomit dolloping her chin, her sulfur-yellow eyes glowing with otherworldly light. Dad, expert on all things, explained that the entity possessing the girl was not Satan per se, but Pazuzu, a Babylonian demon of wind and storms.

“I’ll kill Pazuzu too,” said Cabbage, whose Hell hole was now three feet deep, surrounded by rocks and bricks and steak knives. “First I hit him with a brick, then stab him in the heart.”

“Assuming he has one,” said Mom.

“What about all the other demons?” said Dad, who went on to list the multitudes that cavorted in Hell—Beelzebub, Moloch, and Belial among them.

“I get ’em all,” said Cabbage, who went out to the shed to hunt for more weaponry. 

The twins, scared shitless, trembled and hugged each other on the plaid couch.

Mom went to check on the chuck roast she had thawing in the sink.

“I myself am Hell,” muttered Dad, walking to the kitchen to refresh his drink.

I drifted out to the magnolia tree to smoke, haunted by Regan’s knowing smirk. As a storm blew in from the East, I imagined Pazuzu descending, smelling of car exhaust. I’d studied his statue in Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion, a library book Dad had checked out.

Pazuzu, the Hell King’s firstborn, brought famine and locusts, but weirdly, he was also a domestic spirit who protected homes from malicious guests. He had a lion’s head and jackal paws, a scorpion tail and serpentine penis, two sets of shining wings. I imagined metal music blaring as the demon whirled down, Pazuzu squalling AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” lightning bolts shooting from his red claws. In my fantasy, Pazuzu morphed into Tommy Lee, the most beautiful member of Mötley Crüe—his mane resplendent, his makeup perfection, his cheekbones more exquisite than Cleopatra’s.

“Sometimes the Devil turns to smoke,” said Cabbage, who lurked in the shadows of the magnolia. Born premature, Cabbage had spent his first month steeped in the warm moisture of an oxygen tank, and he still resembled a bleached frog—small and pale, with a potbelly and jutting ribs.

“Other times the Devil is skin and bones,” he said, “muscles jumping, red and slick. That’s when you stab him. That’s when you get him in the head with a brick.” 

Cabbage seemed more fidgety than usual, dark circles under his eyes. 

“Daddy says the Devil can melt to shadows. The Devil can scatter into a hundred snakes and slither off to hide. He can be wind or thunder, jackal or wolf, a nest of screaming spiders under your bed. The Devil can be a gentleman in a rich-man suit, smoking a long cigar.”

Cabbage took a swig of Kool-Aid from a plastic cup and returned to his hole to dig. 

The storm blew over without erupting, and I felt bereft, stuck in the sticky humid day. Instead of thunder, I heard the insipid drone of my best friend Squank’s moped. A plump, clammy boy with silky black hair and skin the blue-white of skim milk, Squank was the only other weirdo at my school. In the first throes of puberty, he squawked and oinked, hence his nickname. Every time he committed what he thought was a sin, he pinched himself on the tender undersides of his arms, where his amphibious skin was dotted with bruises. We’d experimented with kissing, but feeling no love spark, settled into easy companionship.

I ran out to the driveway where Squank idled on his Puch Sport.

“I got the you-know-what,” he called, referring to the saké he’d promised, an exotic Japanese liquor we’d seen on the Shogun miniseries. I hopped onto the back of his bike, barefooted and dressed in a polka-dotted romper, and off we rode, past the elementary/middle school, past the Armory, past Sky City discount store, past the Juvenile Detention Center, out into the green boondocks—dismounting, at last, at the edge of a pond fringed with gnarled live oaks. There we found a stump that resembled a low table.

We’d been obsessed with saké since April. Back when azaleas still bloomed, we’d imagined ourselves in a Japanese garden, sipping from tiny cups with an air of worldly sophistication. While Squank’s parents were churchy teetotalers, my dad swigged Jim Beam, the cheapest whiskey on the planet. After tasting the nasty swill once, I swore I’d never get drunk on bargain bourbon. Squank swore he’d never get drunk at all, but there he was squatting on the ground, a solemn look on his face as he pulled an unmarked plastic bottle and two large thimbles from his backpack.

“Closest thing to saké cups,” he said.

When he poured the clear liquid into the thimbles, his eyes flashed, the silver-gray of sharks feeding in shallow surf. A mourning dove moaned. The day glowed with possibility, the throbbing forest rich and deep. I recalled my father raving about Russian cognac, Lord Byron on laudanum, a book called Confessions of an English Opium Eater. When Dad got drunk, his good eye sparked with double energy, as though about to jump out of its socket. While his right eye was perky, blue as the Caribbean, his left seemed to droop, its pupil displaced, its iris a murky olive brown.

“Kanpai,” said Squank, taking a swig. “That’s the Japanese word for cheers.”

The second he swallowed, Squank was pinching his arms, reciting his litany: “I’m punishing myself. I’m punishing myself.”

“Where did you get it?” I asked. 

“I have my sources.”

I picked up my thimble. Cicadas chanted in the mystic heat. I pictured Bacchus wreathed with poppies, accompanied by maenads and prancing satyrs. Keen for intoxication, for Dionysian abandon and ecstatic revelry in the mythic woods, I downed the liquid.

“It tastes like salt water,” I said. “Plus, I don’t feel anything.” 

“It takes some time,” said Squank. “Let’s have another round.”

We slammed back two more shots, and I gazed up into the boughs, listening to the old trees creak in gentle wind. Did I feel anything? Perhaps—a strange tingle, a whisper of mystery in the fragrant wind. Squank reached for my hand, his palm weirdly damp. I recalled the tentative probing of his pointy tongue, the sickly curiosity I’d felt before pulling away.

After Squank removed his hand, we did another shot. And then my friend’s cool smirk erupted into a taunting sputter.

“I’m punishing myself. I’m punishing myself.” Croaking, sniggering, he pinched his arms. “I’m punishing myself—not for drunkenness, not for gluttony, but for lying.”

“It’s not saké, is it?” 


“What then?”

“Saline solution for my sisters’ contact lenses.” Squank fell onto the ground, seized by a laughing fit. He had older twin sisters, tall cool girls as pale as the moon, opposite in every way to my small, dark spastic brothers.

“Gross,” I spat. “You turd.”

“I’m punishing myself. I’m punishing myself.” New bruises bloomed on Squank’s tender arms.

The day was hopeless, stagnant, drained of magic. I refused to speak to him the whole way home, refused to hold on to him, leaning back on the moped, clutching the back of the seat. When he dropped me off, I darted inside without looking back.

In our hot smoky kitchen, Mom was singeing the chuck roast. Dusk fell, and Dad switched to Beam and Coke—no more sly splashes into his coffee cup. It was cocktail hour, and my father held forth on the mystery of young Merlin’s paternity.

“Merlin was sired by an incubus,” said Dad. “And his powers flowed from his demonic side. Incubi are associated with sleep paralysis and dark, erotic dreams.”

Mom hefted the five-pound shoulder steak to inspect its underside. “This roast weighs more than Cabbage did when he was born,” she said.

“Do you know how to identify an incubus?” asked Dad. 

“Something every woman needs to know,” said Mom.

“Their penises are unnaturally large and cold.”

Mom laughed, eased the roast back down into the cast-iron skillet, and lit a fresh cigarette.

They didn’t see me standing there, mortified in a shroud of smoke, trapped and panicky, still seething over Squank’s trickery. I was about to make a beeline for my room when I heard the growl of Regan emanating from our sunken den. The den, a renovated garage, was semi-subterranean, five degrees cooler than the rest of the house, carpeted in ancient, lichen-colored shag. It boasted one small window, knotty-pine paneling, stained-glass swag lamps the color of flames. The room smelled of mold and smoke and some obscure chemical—carpet glue or termite spray. Water stains darkened the low popcorn ceilings. In one corner where the carpet was peeling up, a swarm of millipedes flourished on dewy concrete.

I stepped down into the atmosphere and beheld the marvel of a demon-powered girl talking smack to two exhausted, vomit-spattered priests. I kneeled before the television, immersing my body in its eerie light. With her glowing eyes, Regan seemed to gaze right into my soul.


Squank did not call to apologize, and I spent endless days shut up in my hot room, flipping through outdated fashion magazines, pining for the lavish hair of impossibly beautiful models who glared with expressions of lofty boredom. After a week of harassment, Mom finally agreed to give me a Rave home perm. I sat on the bathroom toilet as she toiled with rod rollers, fantasizing about returning to school with big hair, my limp red tresses transformed into a riotous mass of spiral curls. I’d tease it into a heavy-metal mane and spray it with toxic gusts of Aquanet, the brand Dad used to shellac his combover into a crisp wing that covered his clammy and enormous forehead. I’d somehow acquire a leather miniskirt, expertly apply moody eye shadow, grow a foot taller, and blossom into succulent womanhood. Nobody in seventh grade would recognize me. I’d remain aloof, dark mysteries stirring inside me like nocturnal birds. I imagined Squank squinting at me, thinking I looked vaguely familiar, his dumbass eyes widening with astonishment when he finally figured it out.

“You’ll have to suffer for beauty,” said Mom, hot-boxing a cigarette as she prepped the bottle of solution, making the bathroom smell like a chemical weapons lab. As she doused each roller, I struggled to breathe, swabbing the flesh-scorching runoff with a washcloth. I closed my eyes lest the concoction blind me, trying to hold on to the image of myself as a femme fatale coolly strolling into homeroom, my hair as formidable as a nuclear mushroom cloud.

“Forty minutes,” said Mom, setting her kitchen timer. “Call me when it goes off.”

I fished a cigarette from Mom’s pack and smoked while gazing into the mirror. My reflection was like a sip of vinegar. I had Dad’s mega-brow and big nose, swarms of freckles that had leap-frogged from odd lineages on both sides of the family, but my lips were full and pouty like Mom’s. I turned away from the window, bit my nails to the bleeding point, and blew a hundred smoke rings.

At last, the timer went off, but Mom did not appear immediately with the neutralizing solution. When she finally unfurled my tresses and rinsed my hair, I rejoiced to see wet cork-screw curls. I went to work with a curling iron and blow drier, sculpting and teasing until I resembled a cotton-top tamarin. Though my scalp was hot-pink and damaged hair-ends fluttered to the floor like dying moths, I felt that sexy je ne sais quois, the eternal power of the femme fatale surging through my veins. I slipped Mom’s cig pack into the pocket of my shorts and walked out into the hot day. Cicadas sang their mating dirges. Our spaniels grunted like swine in their muddy nests. The plaintive whine of Squank’s moped wove through the afternoon song like a minor melody.

I strolled out to the carport and lit a cigarette, channeling the ennui of an heiress on a terrace, unmoved by the exquisite mountain vistas stretching into distances without end, not one shitty ranch house or split-level in sight.

“Wow,” said Squank, but then he tittered—the nervous laughter of a boy out of his depth.

I imagined the creepy pressure of his damp hand holding mine, the weird meld of longing and repulsion I felt when he touched me. Though I wanted to hop on the back of his moped, I restrained myself. Recalling the thimbles of saline solution he’d served me, I chose not to speak to him. Studying the clouds, I remained coiled within my own mystique.

“What did you do to your hair?” 

I did not deign to answer him.

“Okay. So you’re giving me the silent treatment. Look, I’m sorry about the saké.”

It was not saké, I resisted uttering.

We’d spent three months fantasizing about Japanese gardens—the slow geometry of bonsai trees, the tranquility of trickling water, the eternal dignity of stones. Though we knew we’d never visit such a place, saké was an elixir with the power to transport us. And Squank had turned our mutual longing into a cheap prank.

“I guess I deserve this.” Squank pinched his arms, reciting his masochistic incantation: “I’m punishing myself.” Though he attacked himself with unusual ferocity, I did not stop him. I tossed my cigarette butt onto the concrete, stamped it out, and stalked inside, where I took refuge in our living room, a room we seldom used, a space fetishistically maintained by Mom and Dad lest some hifalutin visitor drop by and observe the shame of the true caves in which we dwelled: the smoky kitchen with its maggot-hued linoleum and chipped Formica countertops, the dank den, where one might discover a month-old pork-chop bone moldering beneath the sleeper sofa.

The living room boasted a powder-blue velveteen sofa, floral wingbacks, and a gilded mirror that echoed the glory of saffron wall-to-wall carpet—the only new carpet in the house. In the hushed sanctuary of the living room, an elegantly curved mantel clock ticked above the cold hearth. I sat in the tranquil space, plotting revenge. I’d feed Squank brownies that contained subtle traces of dog poop. I’d invite him to picnic in the sticks and then steal his moped, leaving him stranded in the wilds. I’d tell his choir-directing mom that he sometimes took puffs off my cigarettes, an infraction that would get him whipped and then grounded for a month.

I lit a Doral and strolled around the lovely room, pausing at each revolution to study my new hairdo in the gilt-framed mirror. I imagined that I was alone in a mansion at the edge of the sea, waiting for my lover, who resembled Tommy Lee. The fantasy was set in the eighteenth century. Tommy Lee would arrive on a black stallion, bearing a bouquet of wildflowers he’d picked in some gloomy glade. When I closed my eyes to summon this image, I heard a jazz of insults blaring in the summer night.

I walked to the kitchen, where Mom and Dad’s idle bickering had caught fire. Sneering, my tiny mother hacked up a chicken with a boning knife, attesting that Dad’s sister was a melodramatic hypochondriac who subsisted on pork and cake. Circling the cramped space, my gigantic father declared that Mom’s brother was an illiterate leprechaun who wore size-five shoes, cheap shiny loafers that resembled a fairy’s light footwear. Mom said Dad was a lazy boozer because he was raised by rich drunkards. Dad said Mom came from a tribe of redneck elves, that her father was a simpleton who hadn’t graduated from high school.

The fight was just gearing up. They had at least a dozen relatives to belittle before reaching the rage they craved—an ecstasy of fury that would purge them of human emotion, leaving them light as fasting saints, practically levitating, their faces incandescent. But now they snarled and jeered. Now they stomped on the dingy linoleum, working to unleash the transformative hormones into their blood.

Taking refuge in the den, I turned on the television to find Regan tied to her bed, writhing and groaning as two exhausted priests flung holy water at her, scorching her pale, pubescent skin. The preview seemed to possess our television, coming on multiple times each day, filling the den with unholy light. As the familiar red font of the film’s title surged to center screen, Cabbage screamed, the strange high-pitched screech of a rabbit. He crouched in the darkness behind the sofa, shielding himself from Regan’s demonic face. When the teaser was over, and a commercial for Secret deodorant came on, Cabbage inched out into the light.

Cabbage wore his oxygen tank, two plastic Mr. Pig bottles strapped to his back with a complex array of ropes. A segment of green hosepipe ran from the tank to his mouth, and Cabbage took deep breaths through the tube as though his life depended on it. At last, when he’d had his fill of imaginary oxygen, he pushed the tube aside.

“How did the demon get inside the girl?” he asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “We’ll have to watch the show and see.” 

“Can’t,” said Cabbage, “cause I’m just a little child.”


My parents, worn out from raging, slumped at the kitchen table before a feast of fried chicken, potato salad, and canned green beans. The twins gnawed drumsticks while idly arm wrestling. Cabbage picked the breading off a thigh. Dad carved at his breast like a bored king. Mom always ate the giblets, those dark crunchy innards, saving the deep-fried heart for last, devouring the bird’s small soul, absorbing its power to fortify herself for conflicts to come.

We ate in a communal stupor, lulled by rich food, our fingers slicked with grease. With no prelude of thunder, soft rain fell as night came on. Dad flicked ash onto his pile of bones. He sighed and muttered and fixed himself another drink.

“How does a demon get inside you?” Cabbage asked.

“A mystery,” said Dad, perking up at talk of demons. Lighting a cigarette, our father held forth on possession. “In the Bible, they tied a possessed man down, but he broke his shackles,” said Dad. “Jesus found him outside a cave, his skin cadaverous, his eyes aglow like the sulfurous flames of Hell. When Christ asked who inhabited him, the demon spoke in a deep, raspy voice, My name is Legion for we are many.”

Cabbage shuddered. The twins gasped.

“Don’t listen to your father,” said Mom, getting up to clear the table. “He’s an idiot bullshitter who comes from a long line of idiot bullshitters. I don’t know how he talked me into marrying him.”

“You, a hick from the sticks, married me for my money.” 

“What money? Your drunken father lost it all.”

Dad winced and turned back to demonology. Hungry for occult knowledge, we hung on to every word. 

“The demons begged Jesus not to send them back to Hell,” said Dad, “so he cast the evil spirits into a passel of swine. The pigs oinked and squealed, bucked and brayed. Their eyes rolled back into their skulls, and froth dripped from their muzzles. The pigs stampeded through the village, trampling a toddler to death. They passed out of the town and into the wilderness, where they ran over a cliff and plunged into the sea.”

“Where did the demons go?” asked Cabbage.

“Demons are eternal,” said Dad. “They go this way and that, riding on the wind and roiling over the sea, searching for empty souls to fill up with their evil.”

Cabbage whimpered and sucked his thumb. The twins embraced. I bit my ragged nails. Drunk on the powers of terror, Dad smirked. And then he swayed off to the dining room, where his typewriter sat on the table, a Brother electric that beeped every time he misspelled a word, which was frequently, for his novel contained long passages in medieval English: tomb engravings, poems and spells, the weird muttering of spirits and elves.


The week before The Exorcist aired on Primetime, Squank didn’t call, nor did he appear on his Puch Sport, revving his small engine, tempting me out into the sprawling summer day. I refused to call him, for he’d betrayed me, mocking the fantasy we’d hatched during the tender month of April, when we first started cruising on his moped, fleeing our shitty neighborhood for the fresh green woods. I flung my restless body around our mosquito-infested yard, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Each day the humidity swelled to unbearable pressures. Thunder grumbled, but the relief of rain did not come.

Little Cabbage, intent on slaying Hell’s array of demons before the possessed girl inhabited our television, disappeared into his hole. When the cicadas paused their throbbing song, I could hear the steady hacking of my baby brother’s trowel. Down in the dank clay, Cabbage muttered gibberish, nonsense spells Dad had taught him to keep demons at bay.

Each day after lunch, when the day’s promise slumped, Mom and Dad started bickering, which soon flared into full-fledged brawls. Mom called Dad’s novel a childish fantasy, said our family couldn’t afford his summer off. Dad called Mom an unlettered fool who’d never tasted the sublime—said she’d eat her words when she saw Young Merlin on the bestseller list. Mom said if she ever heard the word Merlin again, she’d scream bloody murder, commit herself to a lunatic asylum, or chop off my father’s head. Dad said Mom’s haircut made her look like a dour little man, an accountant who balanced checkbooks and counted spoons. He said he’d divorce her when he became a famous author. At this, Mom laughed—a high mocking titter that filled the house with disturbing energy, as though emitting a dangerous electric charge. Toxic gases seemed to flow from my parents’ venomous mouths, and we children stayed outside lest we suffocate on their hatred.


On the morning The Exorcist was due to air, Mom went on cooking strike, refusing to make breakfast, shouting, fend for yourselves. We fed on off-brand cereals—Cocoa Nuggets, Fruity Freakies, Crispy Chunks, and Pranks. When Dad poured himself a second cup of coffee and started up on Merlin, Mom dashed for the utility closet and pulled out our ancient vacuum cleaner, which resembled a small, battered military tank. Just when Dad launched a monologue about Merlin’s time of madness, when the young magician ran off into the Caledonian Forest to subsist on grass and wild fruit, Mom went into a frenzy of vacuuming, filling the house with the machine’s rattling roar.

“I’ll suck up every speck of filth in this fucking shithole,” Mom shrieked, her eyes lit with strange fires that we could not comprehend. So, we fled the house—first the twins, then Cabbage, me next, and, at last, our father, stumbling out into the garish day in his red velour bathrobe, clutching a sheaf of papers to his chest. Dad set up camp at the picnic table, fortifying himself with a carton of Dorals, a thermos of coffee, a bottle of Wite-Out, and his dog-eared copy of Vita Merlini. Dad fussed with his manuscript, dabbing and making marginal notes, wincing every time the twins shrieked. He popped a Valium, splashed Jim Beam into his coffee, and muttered snippets of his manuscript aloud.

      Merlin envisioned his wife Gwendolen, decking herself in jewels. Vanity, thy name is woman.


      The naked succubus floated in a cloud of pink mist. Her breasts, voluptuous yet firm, could be glimpsed through the vapor.

When morning passed into the torpor of afternoon, the twins descended from the treetops. Heat-dazed birds rasped in the shrubs, and Cabbage emerged from his hole.

“Daddy,” said Cabbage, “I’m hungry.”

Exhausted from digging, Cabbage stood shirtless in a beam of sunlight, the stark contours of his newt’s ribcage cast into high relief. When my father surfaced from the Caledonian Forest to regard his scrawny son, a shadow passed over his face.

“Your mother is neglecting us,” he said. “She’s a gadabout, a wench of no consequence.” 

“We want lunch,” said the twins.

“I’ll cook up a sportsman’s feast,” said Dad.

We followed our father inside to discover that Mom had wandered off somewhere, probably to the neighbors’, swanky old alcoholics who owned a wet bar and a jacuzzi.

“Don’t worry, children,” said Dad. “I have game in the freezer, fish I caught with my own hands.”

From the depths of the freezer, Dad wrested bass and bream, which he’d cleaned and gutted long ago, storing them in knotted bread bags for the long freeze. He peeled the plastic away from frozen clumps of small fish, piled them onto a plate, and put them into the microwave to thaw. Spinning in the eerie microwave light, the game popped and steamed. When the fish had thawed into a gelatinous mass, Dad opened the microwave and unleashed smells of stagnant swamps, of drainage ditches and backwaters haunted by moaning ghosts. Retching, we staggered out into the backyard, where Dad had set up his propane fryer, its aluminum pot filled with recycled oil he’d saved in mason jars.

Soon Dad joined us with a heap of breaded fish, singing “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley.” A Jim Beam bottle bobbed festively in his bathrobe pocket. In the shade of the magnolia, he unfolded a lawn chair and got to work.

As Dad plopped fish into the sputtering oil, he turned to the topic of Hell.

“In Hell,” said Dad, “three-headed dogs dismember beggars and kings. Dragons swoop to feast upon the organs of the gutted damned. Demons teem—Beelzebub and Hypotenuse, Belial and Mumblebeast, also Darkling, Draco, and Scab. Dancing merrily, they cast grappling hooks to pull sinners from rivers of boiling blood.”

Nattering on about Hell, Dad expertly wielded a set of tongs, pulling crisp fish from the fryer, piling them onto a plate fortified with paper towels, and plopping fresh batches into the sputtering grease to cook. The air seemed to swim with unwholesome oils, substances that left a film on the skin. The spaniels romped in the thick air, begging for food, nuzzling our legs, smearing us with fur and nameless filth. The humidity destroyed my hairdo, turning carefully sculpted bangs into a sticky mass of clotted curls. I felt weak and limp, dirty and hopeless. Disturbing images flickered through my head: Squank cackling maniacally as he downed a thimble of fake saké; Mom opening her mouth to release the roar of a vacuum cleaner; Regan levitating in the strange gusty air of her bedroom.

By the time Dad set the golden heap of fried fish down on the picnic table, it was late afternoon, and Mom was still gone. Dad served the fish with a bag of white Sunbeam bread and a bottle of Texas Pete. According to Dad, the bread would prevent us from choking on bones. According to Dad, our family could live indefinitely on wild game if our mother never returned. “We’ll shoot doves from the powerlines if we have to,” he said.

We ate the fish on cheap paper plates that soon became limp and soggy with grease. First, we nibbled off the crunchy fins and tails, which resembled potato chips with bones. Starved for protein, we gnawed through breading to get at the white tufts of meat, spattering on hot sauce to quell the freshwater funk. We nibbled around spines and ribcages, spitting stray bones onto our plates.

By the time we finished eating, our plates had disintegrated into greasy pulp. Clouds of flies hovered, darkening the air around the picnic table, creating an atmosphere in which we seemed trapped, a cursed miasma of our own making, composed of our breath and gastrointestinal emanations, the stench of fried fish and unkempt dogs, plus the cigarette smoke that perpetually emanated from the moist charred tissue of Dad’s lungs. I was about to retreat to take a shower when I heard the wistful whine of Squank’s moped, the sound of escape, the sound of adventure in distant backwaters, wildflowers swaying along country roads that led to secret swimming holes.

I decided to forgive my oldest friend. I’d climb upon his Puch Sport and let him whisk me away to some other place.

Not bothering to hide my eagerness, I ran out to the front yard. After all, Squank and I had been best friends since third grade. Our friendship had survived that long strange afternoon when we’d experimented with French kissing, methodically inserting our tongues into each other’s mouths, a clinical procedure that had left me cold. We’d laughed afterwards, wiping our mouths and gobbling Tic Tacs, swearing we’d be best friends forever.

Though my friend drove by slowly, he did not swerve into my yard. What’s more, an unfamiliar girl perched on the back of his bike. Though she had the face of an Ewok, her hair was glorious—golden and sun-streaked, frosted and whipped—effortless big hair with natural waves that could not be tamped down. The turbulence of the moped ride had only improved it, and she preened like a Wella Balsam model. Squank, dressed in khaki shorts and an Izod the hue of golf-course grass, smirked. The fool was wearing his older brother’s Ray-Bans. He’d made a mess of his hair with his sisters’ L’Oréal mousse.

The thought of Squank kissing the strange girl didn’t bother me. But when I pictured them speeding down Lake Warren Road, heading toward the green gloom of dense forest, I felt an ache in my gut. I imagined the girl’s hair fluttering in wind, her face serene as they moved through dappled light.

Though Squank pretended not to see me, standing defeated with my deflated hair, he cruised back and forth down my street three times before darting off into the wild summer yonder. I longed to run after them, to push the girl off Squank’s moped and climb onto my rightful perch, kicking her in the face as we drove away. But I slumped back into the house, into the cramped kitchen, where my parents were bickering again. I discovered that Mom had spent the day sipping vodka tonics and lounging in our neighbors’ jacuzzi, floating in an ethereal daze while listening to classical music, forgetting, as she put it, that she was married to an idiot.

Now she stood in the kitchen with clenched fists, surveying the wreckage—strewn cornmeal and spattered grease; bowls full of sallow, malodorous juice; scattered globs of raw fish stuck to the microwave interior. Flies buzzed ecstatically amid the mess, for Dad had forgotten to close the back door.

“But I fed our children,” said Dad. “While you left them to starve.”

This sent a shudder through my mother, a convulsion that worked its way through her body joint by twitchy joint. At last, she opened her mouth to release her fury, spewing barely intelligible words. My parents resumed their dance of rage, stomping and lunging, waving their arms, spitting out insults to punctuate each gesture.

Just when I was about to flee the house and run out into the gathering darkness, I heard the weirdly ethereal theme song of The Exorcist, a bewitching combo of synths and bells. The twins had already nestled into their corner of the sofa. Cabbage hid behind Dad’s gun cabinet, hoping to catch a forbidden glimpse of the possessed girl. I stepped down into the cave-like atmosphere of the den, with its dark paneling and dank air. I smelled mold and smoke and that elusive chemical akin to insecticide or Super Glue. I sat down on the sofa and watched the opening credits roll.

At an archeological dig somewhere in the Middle East, a Catholic priest unearthed a small statue of Pazuzu. Just when the priest encountered a larger statue of the demon, my parents stopped arguing and slipped into the room. Silently, they sat down—Mom on the sofa, Dad in the vinyl wingback chair. And so it began—our introduction to Father Karras and his crisis of faith, to Regan and her mother, to Ouija-board shenanigans and mysterious rumblings in the attic. By the time Regan peed on the floor at her mom’s party, we were in, forgetting our humble surroundings, dwelling in the Georgetown manse with Chris and Regan and Sharon, a sprawling matriarchal space where estranged fathers forgot to call on birthdays and annoying boyfriends got hurled out of windows. Even in the garish hospital light, where Regan endured a carotid angiography, we knew the demon was inside her, evading the most invasive of x-rays.

Even the commercials seemed sinister. A demented-looking Uncle Sam ordered Americans to chew Dentyne gum as their patriotic duty. An authoritative male voice urged a woman, represented only by her lipsticked mouth, to eat a moaning carton of yogurt. A preview of a documentary called The Body Human: The Bionic Breakthrough promised a future of grim-looking cyborgs. My family endured these breaks in silence, rising only to use the bathroom. The twins did not squirm nor plunder the kitchen for snacks, but sat holding hands, breathing in unison. My parents did not exchange light insults or snide remarks. Though I had no idea where Cabbage was, I sensed his presence, an anxious energy lurking outside the nimbus of television light as we waited for full-fledged possession to kick in.

We did not have to wait long. Soon Regan was flailing and spitting vomit, breaking out into boils, doing something mysterious with a crucifix that cut out the second the procedure started. Soon she was croaking in a guttural voice, insulting her mother and the two hapless priests who labored with all their souls to squelch the powers that surged through her adolescent body. Demonstrating superhuman strength, Regan made her bed bounce like a carnival ride. Smirking with panache, she rotated her head 360 degrees. The girl talked astonishing smack to Father Karras, weaseling her way inside his head, morphing into his bleating dead mother and taunting his pathetic faith.

As the priestly fathers flung fake holy water and the power of Christ, Regan levitated serenely, her arms spread wide, performing a feat commonly attributed to saints, rising toward the claustrophobic barrier of her bedroom ceiling. I recalled endless evenings lying in bed, gazing at my popcorn ceiling, feeling like a boxed doll. I longed for Regan to blow the roof off her house, morph into a winged demoness, and soar up into the stormy sky, where multitudes of fallen angels swirled in stormy light, howling at the edge of some mysterious abyss.

When the words help me appeared, etched in scar tissue on Regan’s pale, childish stomach, I had the gut feeling that her appeal was not for the fathers who labored to subdue her fearsome energies, but for the world that did not offer her the vistas she craved. She was trapped in an adolescent body defined and contested by society. Terrified of its transformative powers, the priests tied this body down, stalked around it, and scorched its flesh with fake holy water.

After discovering Father Merrin’s corpse in Regan’s room, Father Karras grew desperate and finally attacked the girl, punching her in the face, attempting to strangle her. Bereft of the holy spirit, fed up with his own impotence, Karras begged Pazuzu to enter him, craving the uncanny stir of the supernatural inside his mortal body. Purple-faced, yellow-eyed, he suffered some terrible epiphany before leaping out the window. At the end of the film, when Regan appeared bruised but demure, I felt weirdly deflated, searching for some sign that the demon might return.

As the credits rolled and the haunting theme song returned, Cabbage rushed weeping from the dim margins of the den and flung himself into Mom’s arms.

“Shit,” she hissed. “Did you just watch the entire movie? I thought you were in bed.” 

“I didn’t see much,” he protested, but the child could not stop sniveling.

Repeating the phrase Jesus Christ, save us, the twins made the sign of the cross.

“Pretty scary, huh?” said Dad, attempting to deescalate the situation with a wry tone. But there was a strange tremor in his voice. He looked unkempt and sweaty, as though a demon had just vacated his body. 

“Come on, children. It’s just a movie. Look, you can all sleep together on the fold-out couch. That way, nobody gets possessed.” Dad forced a laugh—a deranged chuckle that sounded like a cough.

In rare harmony, our parents worked together to prepare the sofa bed, folding out the thin, moldy mattress and covering it with sheets, retrieving an assortment of pillows from our rooms.

And then they abandoned us to the endless night.

Still in shock, the twins crawled into bed. Embracing, they murmured a steady stream of prayers—appealing to God, the Lord, Jesus Christ, Jehovah, the Virgin Mary, and the saints.

Though I hated sleeping with my brothers, I could not bring myself to leave the den, where strange energies seemed to flow from the dark television. The thrill of the movie still hummed inside me, and I wanted to lie down and savor the forces that remained.

After I settled into my side of the bed, Cabbage squirmed in beside me, moaning and trembling, smelling of damp earth and strange metals.

“Let’s turn on the tv,” whispered Little Jack. 

“Mama said not to,” Cabbage rasped.

“This is an emergency,” said the Runt.

When Jack flicked on the television, a U.S. flag rippled in the wind as the crescendo of the National Anthem blared its final notes. And then the screen lapsed into hissing gray static. It was midnight, the Devil’s hour, when television stations closed shop for the night and blood-smeared witches danced naked under the moon. The static sounded like locusts thrumming in the desert. The mass of gray pixels resembled throngs of demons swarming, flapping their black wings, obliterating the sun. Mesmerized, we stared at the tv.

After the boys fell into fitful sleep, I stayed up for hours gazing at the screen. Black-and-white faces strobed—Pazuzu and Regan snarling and smirking. But then Regan surged into color, her face three-dimensional. She inhabited the television—her eyes aglow, her cracked lips oozing some glistening goo.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she croaked. 


“I have secrets to tell,” she taunted. “Secrets that will change your life.”

I kneeled before the screen, electricity flowing from the wet carpet into my body. When I touched the television, I felt a stronger current, which intensified as Regan told me astonishing things—ravishing truths that would make normal life impossible. And then the screen went dark. I fell into dreamless sleep.

When I woke up, I remembered nothing the girl had said, only the giddy feeling of possessing vast wisdom. The clock radio glowed: 3:00 am. Soon my brothers were awake too, groaning and writhing. They’d suffered nightmares so horrifying they could not speak. Every time their bodies jerked, the mattress bounced on rusted springs, and all three boys cried out, certain that Pazuzu was among us. Soon they were in a hysterical huddle—weeping and twitching, pressing themselves together as though longing to fuse their souls so the demon could not detect them.

I lay down and closed my eyes. As the bed shook, I pictured the ancient Syrian statue of Pazuzu hovering over me, the one that appeared in Regan’s bed just after she descended from her levitation. I imagined the demon shattering his stone prison to emerge, a shimmering creature with opal eyes, a golden mane, and lustrous fluttering wings. 

A metal ballad blared, dreamy and operatic.

I stretched my arms toward the spirit and whispered, come in.


Julia Elliott is the author of the novel The New and Improved Romie Futch (Tin House, 2015) and the story collection The Wilds (Tin House, 2014), a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. She has won a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, and her stories have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. Her new collection, Hellions, is forthcoming from Tin House Books in 2025.