(Content Warning: Mental illness, gore, allusions to sexual abuse and violence)
I gots a demon in me; that's what Mama used to say. Mama would always be telling me that demons are all over this world, that they sneak up on little boys and girls and plant evil seeds in their heads that sprout and grow, spreading around their souls like an infection. It kinda be like when you don't wash a part of open, scabby skin; the spot around it starts to turn an ugly shade of yellow, then it gets sticky, and then you gots to clean it with a smelly, burning liquid that leaves the gash looking dark brown for a moment.
Mama swore that for demons the only medicine needed was prayer. "Keep your hands tight and close to your chest. Imagine they're chained, bound by your faith in the Lord. Pray to him, my son, so that he may take your demon away."
But my demon don't go away. I see him in the shadows that bend all crooked like close to doorways. And I'm sure he hides in the bathroom mirror, tucking his slender body into the corners of the glass, just waiting for me to look elsewhere so he can snatch me and pull me into his reverse world, where the bad is very good, and the good is very bad.
I told Mama this; that he saw me brushing my teeth and spitting in the sink, so she grabbed me by the ear, dragged me into the bathroom, turned on the lights, and pointed straight into the mirror. "Where's the demon?" she asked. "If he's here, then I want to see him."
But the demon didn't show himself. "You won't be able to see him, Mama," I said.
"For heaven's sake," she yelled, letting her spit fly over to my cheeks. She placed her hands on her hip and looked at me with her hair-raising eyes, the kind she always used before giving me a beating. "Why on Earth not?"
"Because Mama, he's invisible."
And so she burned my face with her hand, told me to go to my room and sleep. "Pray," she said, before having me leave the bathroom, "kneel by your bed and plea to the Lord so that he can take that demon, only you seem to be able to see, away."
I put my knees on the ground, rested my elbows on my bed, kept my hands raised and my chin down. I begged, "Dear Lord," I sang, "can you guide my demon, take him and forever keep me safe?" Tears trickled down my face. "Please, I don't want him growing, taking over me like a weed, feeding on my fears, and making me think these awful things."
I said a Lord's Prayer: "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
I remembered Mama's words, her hand clutching the Rosary. She often recited ten Hail Marys whenever she felt the need to clear her mind, so I did the same. I didn't have any strings or beads, but I kept the number of the prayers alive in my head. I started with ten, then added another prayer for the Lord, followed by another ten Hail Marys, and repeated myself until my knees hurt and it was too hard to stand.
Ten, that's how many times I blink as soon as I wake up. I place my right foot on the cold ground first, followed by then my right. Ten, that's how many times I pace from one end of my bedroom to the other before making my bed. Ten, that's how many Hail Marys I pray before even thinking about leaving my room for breakfast. Ten, that's how many steps I'm supposed to take from the doorway down to the stairwell. Ten, always ten; any more or any less, someone I love dies.
"Good morning, Jude," Father Vincent says with his head turned to the stove, cooking up a pan of scrambled eggs.
"Mornin' Father Vincent," I return. I grab the kitchen chair by the top headrail, slide it out, back in, then out again until its wooden legs are aligned perfectly with the floor's tiles. I sit down and keep my arms off to the side because Father Vincent thinks it's impolite to place one's elbows on the table.
"Not really," I answer. "I think I got about four hours of shut-eye."
"How many what?"
"Hail Marys," he says, walking towards me with a smoking pan of eggs.
I see it. The disappointment riddled across Father Vincent's face.
The eggs fly in the air. The scorching pan strikes me square in the head. My body's now on the floor, my lips nearly kissing his feet, his fist breaking my teeth. He laughs maniacally like a demon.
"A hundred and ten," I answer.
"A good night's sleep is super important, Jude. You can't go on living like this. What's wrong with a hundred-nine, or even just ten."
"Ten Hail Marys aren't enough."
"And how do you know when it's enough."
"I just know."
Mama used to tell me that I was cursed. That a demon had latched onto my soul. She'd hear me talking to myself while pacing in my childhood bedroom.
"Shut up," she'd always yell. "Go to sleep. What on Earth is wrong with you?"
"Nightmares," I'd tell myself. Nightmares that bloom and paint the black canvas of my eyes, pictures that break through the darkness of my headspace. He, my demon, never ceases to trace vivid images of things I know are not true; he uses a set of ornate, fabricated lies as a front. It's his way of keeping me terrified.
The other boys are rounding up their plates and leaving the kitchen table. They stand and grab their dirty dishes, forks, and napkins. The chairs screech as some of them drag the legs back against the tiled floors.
One boy plants himself in front of the sink while another rolls up the plastic placemats. Another tall fellow scrapes everyones' leftover food into the garbage.
The kitchen is flooded with the sounds of scurrying footsteps, dishes clanking, water running out of the faucet.
The boy rolling up the placemats beside me has a knife tucked under his sleeve. He walks behind me, and the metallic tip shines from below his wrist. He reveals his weapon seconds before the boy in front of the sink has any chance to escape. He plunges the knife into the boy's gut. Blood seeps from the wound and trickles down his legs like piss. Everyone runs. He looks to me, knife in hand and serrated teeth, grinning. I'm next.
"Hey Jude," the boy beside me asks, "you gonna take much longer, or can I take your mat?"
"Huh? I don't know, just leave it with me. I'll put it away once I'm done."
He stares at the food on my plate, the pile of scrambled eggs looking like curdled cheese and the sausage patty symmetrically cut into ten pieces.
"Well, just make sure you finish eating before lunch," he answers, chuckling. "I swear, why the fuck do you take so long to eat?"
"WHAT DID I HEAR?" Father Vincent fires, entering the kitchen.
"Nothing," all the boys reply in unison as if Father Vincent had asked each and every one of them.
"Jude here is just taking an eternity to eat again," the boy by the sink responds, with a water stain over the front of his shirt, looking like an ink blotch. "He's going to skimp out on helping us clean up again, Father V."
"Tell you what," Father Vincent says. "How about you guys leave Jude and me to talk, and we'll clean up the kitchen by ourselves before lunch? Does that sound good?"
"Really?" some of the boys gush in disbelief.
"Yeah, yeah, just scram before I change my mind," and in a flash, the sound of excited running invades the space, dissipating as each of the boys go upstairs or out through the front door to play in the yard.
"Don't forget to dry them dishes," one of the boys mocks before leaving the kitchen behind.
Sometimes I'll see Father Vincent on top of me, his robe draping down from his chest and swaying over my thighs. The seamed edges of his gown will rub against my waist, expand and recede like the white scars that creep onto a sandy beach.
He'll release a beastly sound, almost a tribal roar that'll echo and get absorbed into the sheets. His breath hot over my face, his eyes fixate on the bulge of my neck right before killing me.
"Jude, I'm starting to get worried about you," Father Vincent says. "I know things haven't been easy for you since your arrival, but —"
"Your behavior," he says, "it's not exactly something that I understand."
"Don't worry, Father Vincent," I assure him. "I'm fine," I say, shining him a smile. "It's no big deal. I'm great, see?"
"Come on, Jude, open up. You've been here for eight months, and you still haven't told us much of anything."
Father Vincent pulls out a chair and sits across from me. He crosses his arms and places them over the table.
"I thought you didn't like it when we did that?"
"Well, we're not eating now, are we?" He returns. "You want to know something?"
"I have terrible table manners," he answers, laughing. "But the boys here need to know how to mind their manners if they ever intend to leave here. Honestly, I'm not much of a stickler for the rules."
I scan Father Vincent from head to hands, notice his slouching, his head slightly arched forward as if at any moment he could jump over the table and grab me.
"So," he continues. "I told you something about me, now how about you tell me something about yourself, Jude?"
"Do you really want to know?"
"Lay it on me."
"I have a demon."
I have a demon, one that can't be seen. He isn't noticeable like a shadow or a voice, he's silent like the air I breathe. He speaks through thoughts and rituals, tasks that he can somehow force onto me.
I see him in the corridors, pushing me down the stairs or stretching his body from across the foot of my bed, trying to make a grab for my legs.
I'll see him in what looks like dreams, strokes of light and color that occasionally bleed into reality. He'll take over a room, the objects, the people around me, and sometimes even toy with my body.
The rituals, I need to follow them, even if they seem like nonsense to me. Tens, tens are sacred. Ten blinks, ten steps, ten prayers. I chew my food ten times on each side of my mouth. I must wash my hands ten times on each side every time I go to the bathroom, and I'm not allowed to leave the space before looking at the mirror. I need to make sure he sees me; he needs to be aware of each and every one of my performances.
He knows everything about me. I need to make sure he's pleased. If he's ever unhappy, he'll do something terrible.
I pray every night for him to leave me. Prayers in sets of tens. Ten Hail Marys between each "Our Father," followed by cramping legs and burning knees. This is probably the most valuable task among all the others.
Once my eyes were heavy from such a tiring evening and a brutal beating that I fell asleep before completing my nightly ceremony. That night, I woke up, and my demon had taken Mama away from me.
There's a golden cross on the pulpit, glimmering from the chandelier basking the church in a warm, yellow glow. Father Vincent told me to meet him here, "We'll talk more after lunch," he said.
We talked the entire time we cleaned the kitchen. Father Vincent asked me about everything that my demon had ever made me do. I told him about the thoughts, the prayer, how Mama hit me each time I mentioned the demon.
"And how do you know it's a demon?" he asked.
"Mama told me. She said my father had a demon too. A kind that made him do crazy things. It forced him to go into drinking and make long cuts down his arms. Mama said that my father had this thing with being clean and keeping everything in pristine condition. He wouldn't touch certain things, and his demon only ever let him be when he was in church under the protection of the Lord."
"I see. And what about you? Do you think your demon fears the Lord?"
"I think so. I don't know. Maybe?"
The doors from the entrance bang and echo through down the sea of benches. Father Vincent walks down the aisle with a woman in a pencil skirt, a brown blazer, and turtle shell glasses."
"Jude," Father Vincent begins, "this is Dr. Wong."
"Nice to meet you, Jude," she says, stretching out her arm. "You can call me Lucy."
I stare at her wrinkled knuckles and the contouring lines of her palm and fingers. I don't raise a finger to greet her, and so she retracts her hand.
"Yes, Jude. Lucy here is a doctor and a dear old friend. I asked her to come down here to speak to you."
"About what?" I fire, looking to Father Vincent and then diverting my gaze to Lucy.
"Well, let's say I think I can help you out, Jude. That is if you're willing to speak to me."
"What do you mean?" I return.
"Vincent told me you have a demon. Is that correct?"
"Tell me, how do you live with this demon?"
"I do what he wants. I try to keep things in order just the way he likes it. I also pray."
"Does it always work?"
"Most of the time," I answer.
"And how do you feel about that? About having to do all of these things?"
"Honestly? I feel pretty tired."
Dr. Wong squats down beside the bench where I'm sitting. Father Vincent takes a seat directly behind me.
"We want to see if we can offer you some relief, Jude. A way to help you out that doesn't involve keeping you awake most of the night in prayer."
"NO!" I blurt out. "I need to pray. Prayer is what keeps him at bay."
"No, Jude, it doesn't," Dr. Wong interjects. "The truth is your demon isn't exactly the type that will simply go away like that."
"What? But Mama said —"
"We know Jude," Father Vincent replies. "But how about you talk to Dr. Wong for a bit. Tell her anything you want, tell her everything you told me."
I look to Dr. Wong, her thin eyes bouncing back at me.
"You're a doctor, right? Am I sick?"
"Let's just say your demon isn't exactly what you think it is," she answers. Dr. Wong stands, rests her hand on the arm of the church bench. "Do you mind if I sit?" she asks, pointing to the space beside me.
"Sure," I answer. "One question, though?"
"And what's that?"
"Do you really think you can help me?"