1. Aunt Lucy comes to visit
Everything needed to be just so. Too perfect, and it would come across like they were trying to hard. Not perfect enough, and that bitch Tammie Benson would have every excuse to trash them throughout the neighborhood for a month.
Cooper did a final swing of the house. The appetizers were set out, but nothing that required cooking. Too much risk in that. If the timing was off, you’d be left with cold jalapeno poppers or soggy, congealed bruscetta. So, only room temperature apps. Deviled eggs, made with his own secret ingredient, a wonderful nacho dip with a homemade salsa, and a very whimsical arrangement of gazpacho shots he saw Geoffrey Zakarian prepare last week on the cooking network that he thought would be fun.
Not a flake of dust remained on any furniture and the spiders had been banished behind the walls. A temporary truce. The piano, the centerpiece of the day, was polished to a shine. He could see his goddamn face in it.
Suck that, Tammie Benson,
Jane came down the stairs in a light red summer dress that showed off her form while remaining appropriately modest. Her long mess of curly hair hung below her shoulders and her sleepy eyes took in the room.
“You look great.” He smiled at her. “Is Josh ready?”
“He’s fine Cooper.” She cupped his face in her hands and gave him a small peck.
“Everything is going to be great, don’t worry about it. The place looks immaculate.”
He swallowed a sarcastic response. He reminded himself that Jane had it easy, she got to go to work every day. She didn’t know how cutthroat things got in the neighborhood when the moms (and him) got together. They were vultures and hyenas, with nary a gentle soul in the bunch. They’d pick his bones clean for breakfast and cackle over the corpse.
“I only want today to be flawless. It’s our first recital, and it took a lot of convincing before they agreed to have it here. This could be a big win for us.”
“I know sweetie. It will be..” She stopped and gripped her sides, a frown crossing her face.
“Nothing.” She tried to smile, but it was a nervous thing. “My stomach has felt off today. Maybe I ate something.”
“Okay.” He eyed her suspiciously. “If anything’s wrong, you need to tell me. People are going to be here in like ten minutes.”
“Maybe I’ll get a drink. A glass of water might help.”
“Good idea.” He went to the bottom of the stairs and called up. “Josh! Chloe! Ten minutes to show time. Get down here!” No answer from the kids, which was pretty common. He shrugged and followed Jane into the kitchen.
She was in mid-drink when he entered. The fridge door swung carelessly open and she had taken a pitcher of water and was guzzling the whole thing back, water spilling out both sides of her mouth, down onto her dress.
The only answer was the sound of her labored drinking. When she finished, she slammed the pitcher on the counter and let out an explosive burp that lasted four seconds longer than a burp needed to.
“Jane, what the hell?” He could detect a faint odor in the air, like rotten garbage. It had an almost sulfur-like quality that he recognized.
“I don’t feel good.” She ran to the sink and vomited the water back up. It came out like a fire hose, with easily ten times more liquid then she had consumed. Like the burp, it lasted way longer than it should have and he got a cold sensation in the pit of his stomach.
The smell. The odd behavior. He knew what this was. He’d seen the signs before. But not today, goddammit, of all days, not recital day.
She turned from the sink and looked up at him. The whites of her eyes had turned a sickly, jaundiced yellow and a hollow grin appeared on her face. Small pockmarked scars had appeared on her face.
“Lleh ni tor uoy ess lliw I” Her voice was chewed rocks and several octaves lower than normal.
“Oh come on.” Cooper sighed and rubbed his temples. He did not need this shit today.
“Ut timeant te et discite a me” now four separate voices emerged from her throat and her feet hovered a few inches off the floor.
The Latin clinched it. She was possessed again. Fuck.
“I so do not have time for this.” He said to the demon that wore his wife’s skin.
“I am legion.” It said in a child’s voice. “I am eternal. I am the Devil.”
“Oh, bullshit. You fucking guys always say you’re the devil. Who is it this time? Leyak? Shedim? Valefar?”
“Uh.. Satan?” It said, looking a bit perplexed. He supposed the demon routine normally terrified people, but after the 10th possession, you go a bit numb. Cooper sighed. Every family had their quirks. He was lactose intolerant. Josh had light to medium asthma. His wife, with some frequency, got possessed by demons. What are you going to do? You put your head down and power through.
The doorbell rang. Shit. Guests. He raised his finger at the demon in his wife.
“Do not so much as fucking move, do you understand? I cannot deal with this right now.”
“I shall feast on your bones.”
“Dude. Shut up. CHLOE!” he poked his head out of the kitchen and yelled. “Get your ass down here, now!”
The doorbell rang again. Shit, shit, shit.
“Seriously,” he repeated at the demon. “Don’t move. Just stay in the kitchen and be creepy.”
The demon obliged by levitating and making the cupboard doors open and close.
“Perfect.” He gave the demon a thumbs up. “You do you. My daughter will be down in a sec. I have to get the door.”
He left the startled demon in the kitchen and straightened the collar of his shirt.
2. Deviled eggs
“Tammie, hi. How wonderful to see you.” He put on his biggest grin, the one that ate all the shit, and leaned in for a fake air peck.
“Cooper, thank you so much for having me,” she gushed. He could practically smell the insincerity. Oh, she was looking for an opening. This was war. Behind her, he saw more moms coming to the door with their kids.
Every month, all the students in Mrs. Foster’s piano class would get together for a recital.
He’d been lobbying to host one for a few months. If he could pull this off, it would cement his standing with the moms in the neighborhood. He’d be golden. Maybe parents council would be next.
Lost in his fantasies of neighborhood hierarchies, he took Tammie’s coat and hung it in the front closet. She’d be the hardest to convince, the minx.
Chloe finally made her appearance, stomping down the stairs as only an irritated seventeen year old could, and huffed at him.
“What do you want?”
“Can you help your mom in the kitchen? She’s having a bit of trouble on the phone with Aunt Lucy.” That was their code word for ‘your mom is fucking possessed again.’
Chloe sighed. “Fine. But next time it’s Josh’s turn. I’ve done the last two.”
“Ha ha.” He said between clenched teeth. “Just do it honey.”
He turned and saw the remainder of the guests in. The room filled up quickly and was soon buzzing with moms and conversation, with kids running around.
“I’m so impressed you managed to fit us all in.” Tammie said to him. “Especially considering how modest your house is.” She flicked a spot of dust from his shoulder.
Oh, you bitch. “Thanks Tammie. Hey, too bad your husband couldn’t make it. He seems to spend a bunch of time away from the family. I wonder if that’s good for the kids? Oh, hey Jackie!” he waved at another mom and left Tammie gasping for an answer. Oh, it was on.
He ran to the kitchen to see how Chloe was making out.
Jane hunched over, clutching her stomach, a giant worm emerging from her mouth, only calling it a worm didn’t do it justice, it was about as thick as a foam water noodle and probably just as long.
“Dad what the hell is this shit?” Chloe backed away, disgusted.
“Watch your language.” Cooper knew you had to be firm with teenagers. Give them an inch and they’d take the rope. “It’s a GriefWorm. A big one too. Run downstairs. You know the rain barrels we keep stacked down there? They’re filled with holy water, fill up a bucket and when your mother is done vomiting it up, plop it in.”
“Do I pick it up, or what?”
“No!” he snapped, loud enough to make her jump. “Sorry. No. Don’t touch the GriefWorm. Never, ever touch the GriefWorm. Grab some kitchen tongs and rubber gloves from under the sink and use those. When you’re done, put the tongs and gloves in a garbage bag and throw it in the backyard. We’ll have a sinkhole there tomorrow and we’ll probably hear the voices of the dead while we sleep for the next week, but it’s the best I can do.”
“Chloe.” He rubbed his forehead. “Unless you have immediate access to a bushel of rosemary, four cloves of hoarshound and the eyelashes of a virgin with three fingers, there’s not much I can do at the moment.”
“God! Fine.” She crossed her arms and went downstairs to get the supplies.
Jane was still in mid-GriefWorm vomit, so he figured he had some time. As long as no one came in the kitchen he could still get through this.
“Jane, if you can hear me in there, you’re doing great honey. Chloe’s going to help you out.” He rubbed Jane’s back and she glared at him with malevolent evil. Yuck, that wasn’t good. Normally during a possession, Jane’s consciousness hung out right below the surface, but it seemed like this demon had his clutches in deep. Well, there’s nothing he could do about it right now. He needed to get back to the guests or they’d start to wonder where he was.
Chloe was stomping up the stairs with a bucket, the holy water sloshing over the sides.
“Careful with that,” he said. “When you’re done here, tie your mother up in the chair in the basement, okay?”
“Thanks dad, because this is my first possession and I don’t know what to do.” The amount of sarcasm she used had physical weight. Teenagers. He chose to ignore the barb and ran back into the living room, pausing to smooth his hair down along the way. He couldn’t look too frantic.
Josh had been letting everyone in, and Cooper paused for a moment to watch. The kid was doing great. He looked properly set up in the suit they had bought for him, and he was acting the perfect host by taking everyone’s jackets and making polite small talk with the moms. Cooper swallowed and blinked back some moisture, suddenly overwhelmed with pride. His kid was growing up fast.
“Cooper, you must tell me the recipe for these deviled eggs.” Tammie Benson appeared behind him, tapping him on the shoulder. He wiped his eyes and readied himself for battle.
“Oh, it’s a little of this and that. Family secret.” He tapped his nose and winked.
“Well, I’m going to keep hounding you until I get it. I’m so impressed the way you manage to stretch your budget and I like to keep my eye out for recipes with more… inexpensive ingredients.”
“Hey, I couldn’t help notice that your husband has been spending a lot of time volunteering at the town library lately.” He showed Tammie all his teeth. “They just hired that new assistant, didn’t they? The 22-year old with the huge..”
He was honestly going to say resume, but he wasn’t able to finish his sentence as he was interrupted by a loud series of knocking sounds that came from every direction of the house. Some of the moms let out tiny, startled screams. Oh, that fucking demon.
“Oh my goodness, what was that?” Tammie asked.
“I’m sure it’s nothing. I’ll go take a look.” Josh walked past and Cooper snagged him by the arm. “Josh, keep everyone entertained. I’m going to go check on the kitchen real quick.”
“Where’s mom?” he asked.
“Just on the phone with Aunt Lucy.”
“Ah.” His shoulders slumped. “So she might not be able to see my recital then?”
Poor kid. Jane worked hard for them, she really did. Cooper took care of the house and events like this, and Jane kept them going on the cash side. It meant long nights and weekends and she didn’t get to see the kids as much as she’d like. She’d never been to a recital and Cooper knew how much Josh was looking forward to showing off for her.
“It’s okay buddy. She’ll be here next time.”
“Yeah.” Josh sighed and his shoulders slumped.
“Be right back,” he said to Tammie, and half-ran through the kitchen, down into the basement.
3. A bucket full of solutions
Cooper came down the stairs and saw that Chloe had Jane tied up nice and tight in her possession chair, the one they used for times like this. The straps were leather, but covered in soft blanket so they wouldn’t chafe or irritate Jane’s wrists. The chair itself was plush and comfortable. It was as gentle as he could make it for her when she went through one of these episodes. Demon’s could get aggressive and he hated to see Jane hurt.
The unfinished basement was the perfect place to deal with these events. The concrete of the floor hadn’t been covered meaning anything demon-Jane expelled from her body would be much easier to clean. The only light source came from bulbs that hung from the exposed joists of the ceiling.
Demon-Jane was in full blown possession mode. Nothing of his wife remained and her face had taken on the horrific visage of evil. The movies were almost entirely wrong about what real possession looked like, it wasn’t scary, it was weird. Her pupils had become bifurcated, like snakes lived in her eyes. Her hair hovered a couple inches above her head and came together to form a hand and give him the finger. To her credit, Chloe was following the steps they’d established, reading passages from the bible, while sprinkling her mom with holy water. She was weeping, but only a little.
“What’s wrong, honey?” he came over to give Chloe a hug while Demon-Jane cackled.
“Ah, she told me about Grandpa. I really hate that one.” Chloe sniffled and wiped her nose.
“Oh sweetie, I’m sorry.” One of the favorite torments the demons used was to remind them that Jane’s deceased father was currently in hell, his mouth being used as a semen repository for lesser imps and ghouls. “I know you loved Gampy, but I’ve told you, he was a shrew of a man and he honestly deserves this. Did I tell you about the time he called the police on two little Asian kids selling lemonade? He was a racist monster.”
“Yeah, I know,” Chloe threw a lazy sprinkle of holy water at her mother. “It’s hard to hear that one of your relatives is in eternal torment.”
Cooper rubbed his temples again. Now the demon had made two of his kids unhappy. This piece of shit was a real piece of shit.
“Cooper.” Demon-Jane sung at him with a smile, using the voice of Josh. “Would you like to hear how you’re going to die?”
“I’ve heard this one, buddy. You need a new song.” God, Demons. They all needed new material. Half of them told him how he would die (alone at age 86) and the other half would tell him how much Jane hated him. It was all lies. He didn’t have time for this. Time to bring out the big guns.
“Chloe, you head upstairs, okay? Thanks for your help.” He gave her a one arm hug, and kissed her forehead. These little events were stressful on her and he honestly tried to limit her exposure.
“Thanks dad. I love you mom. I hope you get out of there soon.”
“Your mom hates you and thinks you’re a miserable slut. She hopes you die of chlamydia.” The demon said, grinning, using the voice of Michael Stipe from the alternative rock-quartet R.E.M. It flickered the lights and made noises come out of the walls.
“Yeah, okay. Good luck dad.” With a final sniffle, Chloe went back upstairs. Cooper watched her go and then turned back to the demon.
“It’s just you and me now, fucker.” He cracked his knuckles. “You’ve come at a real bad time today and I don’t have the patience to let this run its course.”
“Cooper.” The demon now adopted the voice of his Uncle, who had died a few years back from cancer. “You’re a miserable pussy of a man. You can’t even satisfy your wife. I have access to her every thought, she’s fucking everyone in the neighborhood.”
Cooper let the demon rattle on and tuned out. Lining the sides of the unfinished basement were rain barrels filled with holy water. Normally they’d only apply sprinkles at a time, but he always wondered how the demon would react to more than a drop.
Maybe today was the day to find out.
He pulled the top off one of them and dipped a cup into the water. Without warning, he threw it on the demon and was rewarded with a scream and a sizzling sound. The stench of Brimstone filled the air.
“Dude, what the fuck?” the demon dropped its guard for a moment. “Don’t do that. You’re only supposed to sprinkle on the holy water. Drops.”
“I know man, but I honestly don’t have time for this today. I think I’m going to skip right to a soaking.” Cooper took a bucket and filled it with holy water. The demon licked its lips.
“We can make a deal. I can make Jane want to give you blowjobs again. Seriously, it’s easy.”
“Get the fuck out of her right now.” Cooper said, brandishing the bucket. The demon swallowed and stuck its chin out.
“Do your worst.”
Cooper threw the entire bucket of holy water on the demon.
4. The HellScream
The demon opened its mouth and screamed. It was louder than anything Cooper had ever heard and he dropped to his knees, clutching his ears, but the scream continued. Jane’s mouth opened wider and wider as the scream continued and soon there was nothing left of her face, the only thing that remained was the blackness of her mouth and the killing pressure of the scream.
It lasted forever and broke time. Random, disjointed images flooded Cooper’s mind. Pulling the wings off a hummingbird. A paper cut between his fingers. A flood of people approaching him, one after the other, asking “how’s it hanging?”. Waiting in line at the grocery store, but the person in front of him didn’t use the divider.
Horrible, gruesome images, and they didn’t stop. They came rapid fire and all he could do was curl into himself and hope it would end, but they didn’t end, they kept coming and coming and if he had a knife he would honestly jam it into his own ears just to stop the sound and the images and oh Christ the images still wouldn’t stop and now he was assaulted with the sights of dead owls falling from a darkened sky and his sister’s fingernails being pulled out one at a time by a grinning man that had no eyes and now he knew the ending to Game of Thrones and how the fuck could they do that to Jon and–
Finally it ended.
His hair was soaked in sweat. He must have missed the recital, that scream lasted days. But no, he checked his watch and it had only been a minute, maybe less. He smoothed his hair back with hands that shook so badly he almost couldn’t get them to function.
A god damn HellScream. It had been awhile since a demon pulled out one of those. The whole of his mind was corrupted, he needed to scrub it somehow.
Jane slumped forward, seemingly unconscious, water dripping from her body, pooling underneath the chair. Cooper wasn’t even sure if the bucket of holy water worked. He put his hand under her chin and lifted her head up to look at him.
“Your mother sucks a universe of cocks,” she said, but Jane and his mom did not get along so that wasn’t proof of anything. He’d heard worse when she’d had a glass of wine.
Regardless, he couldn’t spend any more time on this. He’d tried his best, but he needed to get back upstairs for Josh. He thought the bucket of holy water had unsettled the demon enough that he could loosen the restraints and he unclipped them from her wrists.
“Jane, if you’re in there, Josh will be going on in about five minutes.”
The demon didn’t say anything. Cooper straightened his tie and went upstairs.
The scene in the living room was a little chaotic. The moms were in similar states of unrest, as they also heard the Hellscream. One ran up to him, frantic, and grabbed him by the collar.
“I can smell time.” She said. “It smells like cut grass and loneliness.”
“Everyone looks like Yule Brenner.” Another one said, crying.
Tammie Benson leaned against the wall, picking at her nails. She raised an eyebrow at him. “I adore your musical choices Cooper. What was that last song, Bjork?”
He shook his head. If anyone could shake off a Hellscream, it would be Tammie Benson.
“If everyone could listen to me for a moment.” He raised his voice to be heard over the crying. “I’m sorry for the disruption, what you experienced was a HellScream. Some of you might be wondering why all your memories have replaced by the trailer for the 1987 movie ‘Mannequin’ starring Andrew McCarthy.” A few nods from around the room. “Others of you might have noticed that your hands have turned into early Stephen King novels.” A number of copies of ‘The Stand’ went up in the air.
“Rest assured,” he continued, “that everything will fade and you’ll be left with no specific memories of the last couple minutes. Having said that, there is a chance that some of you, every single year for the rest of your life, at this exact moment, will get your period, regardless of your gender or menopausal state. Sorry about that. On the bright side, the longer I keep talking the more all of this will fade, your hands will turn back into hands and soon we can get on with the recital.”
He continued to blather while his guests emerged from their fugue states, disoriented.
He’d suffered enough HellScreams to know the effects weren’t super-permanent, and the brain would mostly eliminate the offensive memories. Even he was starting to struggle to remember what he was even talking about. To close this off, he brought out the big guns.
“Please turn your attention to the deviled eggs. I said I wasn’t going to tell you, but the secret ingredient is soy sauce. Just a couple drops into the yolks.” Several of the moms cooed their approval and rushed to the appetizer trays. Crisis averted. In moments, everything was back to normal.
“Let’s get this recital started,” he clapped his hands together.
5. Recitals and Demons, oh my.
The recital started without any further complications. The first two kids performed very well, although Tammie Benson’s kid screwed up the fourth stanza, playing the piece a bit too staccato when part really called for legato. Cooper applauded anyway, because the kids shouldn’t be held accountable for the sins of their horrible mothers, and besides, the staccato interpretation had actually been inspired.
Finally, it was Josh’s turn. Cooper couldn’t stop smiling, he was so proud of his little man. The way he sat at the piano bench, his back straight, the seriousness of the moment. Cooper wished so badly Jane could be here.
“Did I miss anything?”
Jane appeared at his shoulder. Her long hair was limp and lifeless and she was dangerously pale, but it was her. Not a demon Jane, but his actual wife.
“You’re just in time,” he whispered to her. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I wasn’t about to let a shitty demon make me miss this moment.” She took his hand and squeezed. He could have burst.
Josh had selected a tricky piece, Sonata in A Minor L.93 by Domenico Scarlatti. Cooper held his breath as Josh put fingers to keys and began to flawlessly play the piece. Even Tammie Benson seemed impressed, and she nodded at him in approval. Beside her, Chloe watched her brother perform. His family was all here. Everything was perfect. Jane put her head on his shoulder and he kissed the top of her head.
“I love you, Janey.”
“I love you too, Coop. Sorry I got sick there.”
“Not your fault. Hey, quick question. You know that thing we never do in the bedroom? You… you haven’t had a change of mind about that have you?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” She frowned at him.
“Nothing. Let’s watch.”