Choke, choke again, I thought my demons were my friends
|Everyone thought it was a childish phase.
A harmless game, they shrugged. She’s at the age where creativity kicks into overdrive, endless dreams and possibilities stretching out beyond those chubby fingers. My parents agreed with the other grownups, towering above me as I played in the sand. Everyone smiled as I chirped cheerfully, gritty hands searching for seashells and answering questions to the empty air beside me. Just a little girl building castles with her imaginary friend.
It wasn’t long after that they discovered this new acquaintance had a taste for mischief.
A few months later, a panicked neighbor called my mother. She ran outside to witness me in the middle of a tea party, up on the porch roof. Seated on a little pink blanket and raising a plastic teapot, I took no mind of the screaming adults and calmly poured a cup for my stuffed animals. It wasn’t until a ladder was fetched from the garage that I took notice of the hysterics.
Beaming as my mother came to my rescue, I held out an empty cup once her desperation came into reach. “Thirsty, mama?”
What followed was beyond my comprehension. At the time, at least. I couldn’t understand the fuss over something I’d done countless times, especially after Vern promised he’d catch clumsy me should I lose my footing. That was when I received my first ultimatum. No more playing with Vern.
What was I to do? He knew all the best tricks, how to sneak cookies from unreachable hiding spots, what to say when I was in trouble, where to hide when it was bedtime, taking me to secret places no human could ever travel.
So, I told my first lie. I looked my father in his stern face and smiled sweetly. “Okay, Papa I won’t.” Vern snickered, floating upside down over my father’s shoulder. “Atta girl,” He grinned toothily, maroon eyes shining brightly.
Lavernael or Vern as he called himself, was no angel. I learned this when my frustrated parents enrolled me into a primary school for problem kids. Frankly, I never gave them much choice. At nine years old, I was a holy terror in the eyes of anyone that knew me. Kids daring to mock my strange habits or outlandish appearance found themselves at the mercy of an invisible assailant. Milk soured the moment they drank it, books would fly off desks, insects infested backpacks, foul stenches followed them and much more until the victim finally burst into tears and apologized to me.
None of the teachers could pin anything on the quiet girl with dark hair. After all, I was always peacefully sitting at my desk, pencil busy with coursework. It wasn’t hard to be the model student. Especially with Vern whispering all the answers in my ear.
Though I acted sweet as can be, many of my classmates spread rumors that I was a witch. Bullies who received an especially nasty comeuppance dropped out of sight and those that remained murmured stories of being turned into newts, spiders or worse. Hardly within Vern’s power, but nobody needed to know that. Eventually, the school board had a meeting with a group of furious parents. From what he told me; many students were too scared to attend class with a freak like me.
“Looks like they’re giving ya the boot,” Vern shrugged, picking fangs with a slender claw. I frowned and looked down at the crayon drawing I was making. It was a three headed dog, saliva dripping from a trio of hungry maws as it loomed over a crowd of prostrated figures. Vern eyed the artwork and shook his horns. “Don’t show 'em that one, your old man might bring round an exorcist or send you off to Catholic school.”
I tilted my head. “Would that be bad?”
He flapped his leathery wings and drifted closer. “Oh aye, you’d have to wear a starchy uniform, go to church and ask forgiveness every day or risk going to Hell.”
Squealing with laughter, I rolled around holding my sides. “We’ve been there lots of times!” He rasped a chuckle at my antics. “That we have. But there’s a big difference between visiting family and moving in next door.” Laying on my tummy, I propped up my head and thought for a moment as my bare feet kicked the carpet. “Aunt Lilith is awfully nice. What’s so bad about seeing her every day?”
Vern was always surprised by my nonchalant attitude. “Of all the people that could have gotten me,” He would often say. “I’m eternally grateful it was you.”
Eventually, I understood why. Trouble followed wherever I went, it seemed. We attended and were kicked out of many institutions together as my tastes grew and matured with alarming rapidity. At the tender age of twelve, I was thrashing to death metal and pronouncing myself an atheist. At thirteen I was caught under the bleachers with a half-smoked joint. At fourteen I blackmailed a teacher after she accused me of cheating on a test I definitely did not study for. Vern slipped up and forgot to change the wording of the essay he’d stolen from last year’s records, forcing me to take Ms. Yakovic aside and hold her secret affair hostage.
“H-how?” Her lips quivered, skin fading to an ashen pallor. “How did you-”
I pointed to my test. “Give me a passing grade or you’ll find out.” Vern leered gruesomely at the shaken teacher, forcing me to bite my lip. The jerk almost ruined it by making me laugh.
When I hit sixteen, I discovered that everyone was assigned a guardian angel at birth. “They don’t normally appear unless it’s life or death. Sometimes to help make a moral decision but usually it’s a last resort type relationship.”
From the broken dock, we watched dark waves lap over the cracked wooden remnants, splashing over lichen and barnacles. This deserted island was one of our favorite places to talk. No sirens, no angry shouts, no choking exhaust, nothing to disturb us but the mournful cries of seagulls and the hissing ocean crashing over sand.
The cold wind sent freezing hands burrowing into warm hoodie pockets. I shivered as the gust whipped past, salt stinging my eyes. Vern shifted to block the current, forked tail waving gently in the fishy breeze as he lay on an unseen couch.
“So why did you reveal yourself?” I asked, tucking away the long obsidian hair tumbling from my green hood. It fell out again, whipping around until I pulled out a hair tie and secured the errant locks.
Vern closed his eyes and yawned. “Was bored, I suppose.”
I grabbed a piece of driftwood and chucked it at him. Moving languidly, he dodged it without looking. Huffing, I crossed my chilly arms. “Seriously? You were just bored and felt like messing with a baby?”
He cracked open a scaly eyelid. “What, you wanted to hear that you were special or something?”
I scowled at the floating demon. “No. Well, yes but I figured there was more to it than that.”
Vern pulled a glass of amber liquid from thin air, ice cubes tinkling against the glass. He slurped it, sighing contentedly. “I tell you, the best drink you humans ever made was the Long Island.” I rolled my eyes and pulled my knees closer for warmth. “Everyone gets an angel and I get a drunk imp.”
It was his turn to shoot me a dirty look. “Lesser fiend, thank you very much. I don’t go around calling you a bitch.” He cocked a bristly eyebrow and took another healthy swig.
“Why am I the only one with a demon, then? Was it some clerical error? Did Heaven call a temp agency?” It seemed like my questions were falling on deaf ears.
Vern belched a blue fireball. “Always tastes like sulfur,” He grimaced, wiping his lips. Seeing my irritated expression, the dark guardian sighed wearily and sat up. “I got no clue what went on during the creation of your soul. All I know is that ol’ Bubs himself sent the order down the chain and I drew the short straw. Not that I’m complaining. You make far better company than all the other mortals combined.”
I knew there was more to it than he let on, but there were probably reasons for keeping cards close to his chest. Perhaps there were rules against letting people see past the curtain and glimpse the strange machinations of Heaven and Hell. Or maybe he just got lucky and didn’t want to cause any undue attention.
“Whatever,” I sniffed. “Let’s go back before my butt freezes to the ground.”
Our camaraderie wasn’t always rock solid. Like all relationships we weathered many storms, but our friendly vessel was never dashed against the shore, suffering irreparable damage. Fights never lasted more than a day or two. Once tempers cooled, we sought each other out and resolved to overcome the obstacle together.
After a particularly heated argument, I went to the mall for a much-needed breather, hoping to find some welcome distraction in the form of soft pretzels, iced coffee and chic accessories. It was time for a new handbag, anyway.
I should have known Vern was up to his tricks when mall security blocked the exit. But I’d done nothing wrong. Not that day at least. Presenting the receipt and my new clutch, I felt a sinking sensation as they unzipped the grab bag to find it stuffed with jewelry from the store next door. “Check the cameras,” I remember repeating to the police. “I never set foot in Zales, the footage will back me up.”
After hours of questioning, they were forced to let me free. Insufficient evidence and reasonable doubt. But I was no longer welcomed at the shopping center, banned from one of my few safe havens. The loss hurt me more than the embarrassment. Some girls might have cried over this whole ordeal, other might even have called up their friends to vent. I had a different result in mind.
Before I stopped home, I went to chat with a lovely old Pastor who baptized me back when I was too young to give people gray hairs. After that productive discussion, I left with a bundle of blessed incense. Then I proceeded to fumigate the ever-loving shit out of my room.
Vern appeared to me, crimson eyes watering, choking, and wheezing as he begged me to stop. “Please, I’ve got the most infernal migraine. I won’t incriminate you ever again, I swear on the seven seals of Abbadon.”
“You better not,” I growled. “Next time, I’m filling a super-soaker with holy water.”
These misadventures resulted in a permanent truce, vowing never to harm hide nor hair. Well, at least in action. We constantly threw around barbs and insults but never mean-spiritedly. At the end of the day, all we really had was each other.
But nothing good ever lasts.
Normally, I loathed the first day of school. Not only did it mark the end of carefree summer days, but it was stuffed with awkward get-to-know-you activities. Who cares about these brainless mouth-breathers? Half of them were drop-out material, the others were insufferably smug with the grandiose career plans their parents mapped out.
So when my homeroom teacher paired me with a quiet partner, I gave him the standard greeting. “Hi, I'm Bell. My hobbies are not giving a fuck and looking forward to leaving this dump. The less I know about you, the more I can tolerate you. Let’s work together and have a great year, okay?”
I studied his hazel eyes defiantly, daring him to challenge my prickly introduction. Guys either rose to the occasion or shied away from me. This one was oddly indifferent.
He solemnly nodded as the ghost of a smile hovered around his lips. “In that case, you can just call me ‘new kid’. In fact…” Snatching an activity sheet, my partner slid it over. “Why don’t you fill this in for me? I’ll write in yours and that’ll throw everyone way off.”
I frowned slightly, questioning his motives. This guy was far too easy going, probably just playing it cool so I’d warm up. Let’s see how he reacts to this.
Taking his sheet, I scanned the header with mild interest. His parents called him August? Good gods, definitely a pretentious one. Dude probably even jokes he was named after the hottest month for a reason.
As he began to write in answers for my hobbies and interests, I covertly glanced over at Mr. August. Handsome wasn’t the adjective I’d use. Messy brown hair, some freckles and a lazy smile were the only things setting him apart from being plain looking. Poor thing. A person doomed to become an insurance adjuster or some other equally boring profession.
I looked back at the paper and grinned evilly. He was going to regret being all buddy-buddy after I was done.
Once the sheets were turned in, Mr. Clemens began to read them out. I concealed my eager expression behind a curtain of obsidian hair, knowing he would recognize me as the culprit.
“… and here we have a fresh face, August. I’m sure this will help all of you learn more about your new classmate.”
“August enjoys… wearing a furry suit and covering himself in thousand island dressing?” Laughter erupted as kids slapped their desks and jeered. Mr. Clemens loosened his collar and swallowed nervously. “… ah I don’t really get it but I’m sure he wasn’t serious. He also wants to be a male stripper or gigolo…”
I dropped the veil and turned to see his reaction. Was it horrified? Embarrassed? Furious?
August was sputtering with mirth, looking as if he was about to pee himself. Crumpling up the paper, the homeroom teacher eyed the boy sternly. “Seems we have an applicant for class clown.” I fumed in silence as Mr. Clemens tossed my hard work into the waste bin. He didn’t even get to the best part.
Clearing his throat, the teacher continued wearily. “Bell likes to read Scripture each night and give thanks for the gift of each new day. She hopes to one day enter into a convent and live out the years in blissful solitude.” He shot me a disappointed glare. “Please take this activity seriously. It’s not going to be fun and games when grades appear.”
I opened my mouth like a shocked fish, unable to think of a response. August was staring at me with a shit eating grin that'd make Vern blush.
After that day, the new kid was permanently on my radar.
His humor wasn’t as crass or abrasive as mine, but August was fluent in sarcasm. I could always count on a cynical one liner to brighten up my dreary mornings before we went our separate ways. Often, I found myself wishing for his presence in my other classes, yearning to suffer the tedium with a kindred spirit. Vern rarely hung around unless I had some wicked schemes in mind. I never held it against him. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in Trigonometry either.
It was irritating how frequently my thoughts turned to that scruffy haired kid. He didn’t have sculpted features, bulging muscles or suave charisma, nothing that made the ladies’ knees go weak. I didn’t fully understand it myself.
He possessed a quiet confidence, rejecting many of the popular cliques that teenagers form. I asked why he didn’t try to fit in anywhere. “You’ll never be what anybody wants you to.” August shrugged. “What’s the point of trying to impress others with something you’re not?”
I scratched my head. “Were you held back a few years or something?”
He peered over his shoulders to make sure nobody could hear. Then August leaned forward like a shifty conspirator. “You can tell? I’ll be thirty next week. The doctors said the operation was a success.” Rolling my eyes, I swatted him with an eraser. “Har har. You just seem, I dunno. Kinda mature for these primates.”
August put a hand to his chest with a terrible flourish. “Ah yes, too mature and sophisticated to associate with a lowly peon like you.”
He winced as I punched him in the shoulder. “Peon or not, I’ll still kick your ass.”
“Don’t you dare threaten me with a good time,” August quipped as the dismissal bell drowned out my laughter.
What I liked most about him is… hard to say. It didn’t matter if I was telling a story, complaining about homework, or making small talk. August had this way of looking at me like I was the most important person in the world. I mean, he wasn’t just listening, or hanging on to each word. His hazel eyes cut through the smokescreen and saw me for who I really was. Often, I had to look away before my face betrayed me and turned scarlet.
August was a strange word to me now. Every time I saw it, I was reminded of the sardonic boy with eyes like a shimmering pond, swirls of greenish brown flecked with gold. My chest ached. I knew the symptoms and dreaded the prognosis. Time to consult a close fiend.
When he caught wind of my new crush, Vern cackled until he could scarcely fly straight. The joke was lost on me. Pressing my lips together, I glared at the horned idiot until the moment faded and he began wiping away brimstone tears. But one look at my face set him off into a fresh bout of giggles.
“Him? You… you can’t be serious,” Vern grasped his aching sides, laying spread eagle on the ceiling tiles. He looked like a drunken bat. Wings flapped helplessly as he struggled to sit upright.
I turned on my heel and left him to sober up, blood rushing to my indignant cheeks. Damn imp had some nerve. It was the first time he’d straight up laughed in my face. My mind roiled, seething with things I wanted to call him, conjuring up petty acts of revenge for being the butt of a joke. I never considered that Vern might have had his reasons.
Maybe he had some part in it, or it was just dumb luck. August and I signed up for the track team, ready to try out for the various events. Unfortunately, they split us up to do laps. I was running with the girls and slyly sneaking looks at him whenever I could. His body was lean but fit. Clearly, he was in his element running, even the coaches seemed to think so. A budding star of track and field.
I was certainly very appreciative of the shorts he was wearing. Never thought I’d be into calves, but this year was full of surprises.
When the coach whistled for a water break, I sidled up to August as nonchalantly as I could. Several flirty questions were on the verge of spilling out, ready to test the limits of our platonic relationship. But a brown square caught my eye, distracting me. It stuck out from behind his shirt collar, seemingly a clothing tag. A weird design was sewn on it.
August saw me looking and cocked an eyebrow. “Everything cool? There isn’t a wasp on my back is there?”
I started guiltily, as if caught spying on something forbidden. “Er, your shirt. I think the tag is caught.”
He reached behind and tugged on the tag. To my astonishment it was some bizarre fabric necklace, with a square hanging both sides. “Always does that when I run,” August sighed and tucked it back down.
“What is that? Didn’t think you were the type to wear accessories.” I took a swig of icy water, feeling sweat trickling down my back.
“No, it’s…” He paused for a moment. “It’s complicated,” August sighed. “And not very interesting.”
I tilted my head. “Au contraire, I think you are very interesting.”
Vern would probably be puking his guts out if he saw me. He hated anything cutesy or sappy. I did too… usually.
The whistle shrieked, signaling the next event. August smiled apologetically. “Another time. Good luck with the hurdles.” I gave him a mock salute as he jogged off over to the relay team. But something in me felt nervous. He was hiding something. The look of relief when he heard the whistle was the forefront of his first lie. This wouldn't come up again unless I prompted it. And sure enough…
That time never came.
After a few weeks the questions burned in my mind, rattling around a weary skull as I tried to muffle them with my pillow. I wanted to respect his privacy. August had a right to secrets, especially since I was practically bursting with them. But I couldn’t shake a memory from my mind. The little girl, forced into a lie. Except now I knew what it felt like to wear my father’s shoes.
Okay Papa, I won’t.
The fragile egg of my willpower cracked.
Cracked until the shell shattered and betrayal oozed out, staining my hands with guilt. Vern knew what I was going to ask.
He could see the defeat in my eyes, answering it with a knowing leer. The air wavered and twisted as demonic energy crackled. Sparks snapped, dirty smoke billowed out from beneath his talons, smothering his hunched form. Flames burned below the curved horns, Vern’s eyes scorching through the haze as his voice fell to an unholy octave. “By my arcane powers, who asks for the blessings of Astaroth, lord of hidden knowledge?”
My voice was low and reluctant.
Vern bowed his head, fiery eyes licking at his horned brow. Then he melted into the soot. I waved a hand at all the smoke and scrunched up my nose. Blasted imp didn’t have to be so formal. He just loved the theatrics.
Several long minutes passed until he imploded back into existence. Wisps of brimstone snaked into the air and dissipated. His winged form lurked in the gloom beside my window. I was about to scold him for skulking moodily until he emerged wearing a grim expression. “Kid, you really don’t want any part of this.”
I was ready to tell him EXACTLY what parts I wanted until he continued. “August ain’t his full name. It’s Augustine, after the saint. And his necklace is a scapular, which Catholics wear in case of sudden death so their souls get the fast pass to heaven.” I opened my mouth, but he held up a claw.
“I ain’t done yet. You wanna be friends, yeah okay. But if your goal is to get cozy, you’re bettin’ on the wrong horse. Infernal house was like a monastery. Statues and candles out the ass.”
I refused to accept this. It was unimaginable to think the dry and cynical boy I knew was a Bible thumper. August acted so… so normal. But the signs were there. He never swore, never wore a shirt without a collar, didn’t watch a lot of TV... I ignored those nagging thoughts. Vern was just trying to scare me off, that was it.
Biting my lip, I voiced what little defense I could muster. “He’s not like that at all though. It might just be his parents! You don’t know if he really believes.”
The dark guardian spread his arms and shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe you could corrupt the poor thing, talk sense into him, sneak him some drugs, make him see the light, I don’t care. I’m just letting you down easy before you risk going all in.”
“But I- “
Vern interrupted me with a flap of his wings. “If you are serious about this kid, you’d best be careful. Half of the stuff we get up to would even spook a hardened agnostic. Hells bells, if he catches wind of your full name…”
There was a strange glint in his wicked eyes. It seemed almost… regretful. Then ragged wings flapped again and he soared through the open window, out into the night. I watched the demon fade into the starry sky as my fragile hope dwindled into despair.
Sometimes I hated how damn reasonable that fiend was.
I’m sure he was equally displeased. Vern knew full well he’d raised me to rebel against the world and that I wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. He was right.
Although I’d never been afraid of confrontation, my tongue swelled up and my heart raced when I thought about approaching August. I’d never been a coward in my life. So why was I creeping around the hallways in fear? He knew something was going on when I avoided him, ducking his questioning gaze and scurrying to the safety of the ladies’ room.
I faced myself in the mirror, dark circles shadowing my panicked eyes. “Vern,” I whispered, eyes shut. “Please take me home… I – I can’t do this today.”
Coward. I took the easy way out yet again and had Vern put a note in August’s locker. Double coward.
After I spent a few days at home, August texted to make sure I was doing okay. My hands shook, not wanting to press send. Now or never.
Meet me in the park tomorrow?
My phone buzzed. I peeked at the screen through my fingers.
Then a dreaded realization crept over me. What was I going to say? That I spied and found out he was an altar boy? That I had a personal demon attached to me? That I kinda sorta maybe might like him slash want to be with him?
Vern said it was probably better to go with the last one and leave it at that. I think he was trying to cheer me up, stoke some hope that this wild swing would connect and gave me a home run. My confession was the slimmest of chances. And yet, I grasped for that slender thread as my world crumbled away.
August was early. I spotted him half a block away, sitting on the park bench as I rounded the corner. A beaming smile spread across my relieved face, cares spilling away as feet quickened. Everything was going to be fine. He’d understand.
My shoes stopped. Eyes widened. Lips clamped shut, quivering with anger. August wasn’t alone.
Some blonde skank was laying against him, golden hair spilling over his shoulder. She looked adoringly up at him and said something I couldn’t hear. Whatever it was, he found it funny. My ears were ringing. A faceless shadow bumped into me, mumbling an apology in passing. I didn’t hear it. Didn’t feel it. Only the daggers of betrayal, relentlessly stabbing at my heart.
A raging ocean, crashing and pouring endlessly out from my invisible wounds. I didn’t fight it. All I wanted was my feet to carry me anywhere but here. As I turned to leave, the bimbo’s sight flicked over to me. She flashed a friendly smile, but the cold emptiness in her eyes revealed true intentions. Take him if you dare. It was the humorless grin of a wolf, baring teeth meant only for one purpose.
She whispered something and spat. Ḫarīmtu. It echoed in my mind. I had no clue what language it was, but you know an insult when you hear it.
Blood bubbled and boiled over. Narrowing my eyes, I tensed my shoulders and clenched my fists. Time to put this uppity bitch in her place. I took a step forward. Her sneer widened. Then a clawed hand shot out and yanked me back into the alleyway.
“Are you insane? That’s an angel you’re picking a fight with.” Vern shook his head in disappointment. “Thought you’d have a little more brain than that.” He pushed me out of sight and flew over to sneak a peek down the street.
I stormed back towards the park, forcing him to move me further down. “Calm down, kid. We need to-“
I twisted out of his grasp and raced back. He caught me a few feet later, squirming and kicking in his grasp. “She’s rubbing herself ALL over him and gloating! LET. ME. GO.”
His wings flapped, wind howled, and energy crackled. We were back at the docks. But the sea-breeze was colder now than ever. I shouted over the frozen wails, furiously demanding this cursed demon to bring me back to August.
But no matter how nasty I got; his infernal side refused to emerge. Instead, he grew more dejected and gloomier. “I can’t take you back. I just can’t.” I switched tactics, bombarding him with questions about the winged floozy laying claim to August.
Vern deflated with a sigh. “Angels are always attracted to the pure of heart.” Pure of heart. Angels. The idea twisted and grew, an observation fed by years of suspicion and unanswered riddles. An unspoken dread reared up, the ugly truth dwarfing me in its seven-headed shadow. Why didn't I see it before? There was an explanation for why an angel stood between me and August, a reason for her attempting to get me angry enough to do something... stupid. A justification why I was the only one with a demon.
“Vern?” I said slowly.
He wouldn’t meet my gaze. I stood right in front of him, forcing the demon to acknowledge my presence. “I just have one last question.” Smoke poured from his ears, a nervous tic. His wings shivered. Fear didn’t look good on him.
Pulling on his curved horns, I made the shifty creature look me in eye. “What does ḫarīmtu mean?”
Licking his lips, Vern took a shaky breath. “It’s… it’s ancient Babylonian.”
“And… it means whore.”
I staggered back and slumped against the cracked concrete. All it took was a word. A brief sound, a simple expression. And with that collection of hurtful syllables, my entire existence suddenly fell into place.
Jezebel the whore.
Mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.