A white clapboard church surrounded by fields of corn and soy sat in the outskirts of a small city in the South. The congregation of this church believed in God and the Devil, demons, angels and open carry. When they sang in their church, they let their voices ring out, righteousness lifting up into the rafters year after year, collecting like a dangerous gas. People in churches like this were invigorated by tussling with a little bit of evil. It was a good arrangement. Good for the people and good for the evil.
One Sunday, eight-year-old Joshua Cartwright ran down the back hallway of this church to show his mother the candy bar he got as a reward for a perfect Sunday school paper. Tracy Jean was in the vestibule talking to the minister’s wife about how wonderful the sermon was. She put her hand down on Joshua’s head without really seeing him. His little sister Ruth reached for his candy bar, knocking against him. He held it over her head. She jumped and whined.
“Joshua, you give Ruth a bite of your candy bar,” his mother said in a nice voice, smiling at the minister’s wife. Joshua glared at Ruth in her pink headband, her dress already smeared with icing from a donut.
“No,” he said, half-formed thoughts knocking around in his mind; to earn this candy bar, he’d shared his Hot Wheels with his sister, he hadn’t pinched her for a month. She didn’t ever share and still wet her pants. He remembered his sister rumpled and squalling just this morning when his mother tried to put tights on her; he’d waited all ready for church with hair he’d combed himself.
As Ruth’s face contorted with rage and she opened her mouth to scream, the candy bar was plucked from Joshua’s hand, his mother still smiling as she held it out of his reach.
“Honey, you know what happens to people who don’t share,” she said. The minister’s wife also smiled while Tracy Jean handed his candy bar to Ruth. She grabbed it and trotted to the corner, looking at Joshua with glittering eyes. He heard a few chuckles from the grownups watching and he felt a terrible heat in his throat and before he could stop it, the word his father said when he drove the car boiled out of his mouth.
“Dickheads,” he screamed, and then shouted it again into the shocked silence. His mother’s smile hardened and she snatched up his arm so hard and high his feet left the ground as she hauled him to the door, expertly switching the arm she held him with so she could land great swooping swats on his butt. When a particularly forceful one landed squarely, he felt his fingers involuntarily let go of his prize-winning Sunday school paper. It lifted in the early afternoon breeze and scudded across the parking lot. Joshua was packed into the car with Ruth, and their father Chad drove everyone straight home. No pancake breakfast after church for anyone.
The afternoon grew still and heavy. Joshua’s paper rested flat on the asphalt in the empty parking lot. “Noah and his sons obeyed God. I will obey God, too,” was in large black font across the top and there was a carefully colored scene with Noah, bearded, staff raised as the pairs of animals marched up the gangplank into the Ark. Four weeks of gold stars awarded for Godly behavior glinted in the hot sun.
By late evening, a thunder storm blew in and poured down rain. The storm left something behind. In a puddle was a little cocoon. Inside, packed like a chick in an egg, was a tiny demon struggling inside a leathery membrane the color of a bruise. With a wee clawed hand, she sliced the sac and slipped out, floating in the rainwater alongside a feather from the breast of a sparrow and Joshua’s waterlogged Sunday school paper. Her face turned up to the moon, fine boned and luminous eyed, like a milkmaid, a starlet, a queen. She could swim in a teacup; she weighed no more than a pebble.
Joshua lay in his bed that night, listening to the storm and imagining his paper wet and lost. Something in him tore away, and it was like he was falling upside down into a dark sky. When the storm cleared, he finally drifted off to sleep, still shuddering from the lash of his father’s belt.
The tiny demon stood on her cloven hooves in the puddle; a heart the size of a grape seed pumped liquid hellfire through her veins as she fanned her wings. The boy’s paper bumped against her thighs. She wrenched a gold star off and ate a corner of it. When she was done, she flew to the top of the oak tree next to the church and crouched on a branch, panting. A string of saliva as light as a spider’s silk trailed to the ground.
Joshua was not the same boy when he woke up in the morning. Injustice seared him as he slept. He’d been godly for four weeks. He’d been a perfect boy. God didn’t care. No one did. He stayed in his bed until his mother shouted for him. He sloshed the milk in his cereal bowl so it spilled. He almost missed the bus.
After school, he took a screwdriver from his father’s workbench and hid under the dining room table where everyone gathered for holiday meals. His mother called it an heirloom and polished it with something that smelled like oranges and honey. She was in the kitchen making dinner and talking to a friend on the phone about Charlotte Dell, who was a sinner because she was very proud of her oldest son in medical school and always mentioned it.
It was dark in the dining room with the curtains pulled. He was like Jonah in the belly of the whale. He took the screwdriver and dug it into the wood above him. “Dickhead,” he whispered. “Dickhead.” Pushing harder, he gouged circles; his arm felt warm and strong and his hand moved on its own volition, carving bad words into wood that felt as soft and yielding as clay. Then he worked on making dicks and titties and mean, ugly faces. The jumble in his heart loosened and he cried hot tears that took away some of the shame his father’s belt cut into him. He looked at what he’d done to the underside of the table and felt proud, like he had his own self back inside him now.
While Joshua carved her heirloom rosewood table—handed down for three generations—Tracy Jean filled fellow parishioner Mary Grace’s ears with gossip to cover her shame over Joshua’s outburst. Mary Grace was dazzled. Normally Tracy Jean didn’t return her calls for days and often broke off conversations to run and talk to someone else. From what Tracy Jean was telling her, their friends and neighbors were a lot like the mini-series Pastor Davis preached against. Tracy Jean’s words gave her a thrill. They sounded like incantations; they rang through her and gave her hot spikes in her belly. She couldn’t wait for the church picnic next Sunday, knowing all these secrets about everyone.
The interesting thing about Tracy Jean’s gossip was that not much of it was true.
When she got off the phone with Mary Grace, she couldn’t remember what she’d talked about. But her body felt warm, like she had been in the sun. The sight of everyone’s shocked, smug faces looking at her after her son shouted a horrible word last Sunday had lodged in her liver, a coal of helpless rage. In her recently renovated kitchen, her nostrils flared like a war horse, and she tossed her frosted bob out of her eyes. “All of you are sinners,” she muttered.
Thousands of years ago when the scribes were busy mixing their inks of gall-nut, bluestone and honey, when they were scratching out the holy texts on papyrus and vellum, the tiny demon who rested in the oak tree by the church was more divine, more profane and the size of a woman. Now she held no thoughts of her own, had no sense of time. Memories blew through like wind—once she was a succubus, the monk beneath her writhing in ecstasy; once she materialized before women in the forests who said her name with bitter herbs in their mouths. Sometimes she watched them burn, tied to stakes, and she grew stronger, able to fly to the top of a tree with a baby, dropping wet bones to the ground as she ate.
Her deeds and visitations seeded a thousand stories told at night by the fire at the end of gray and brutal days of mud, disease and endless labor. She made people earn their goodness; some she drove some mad and those people kept the passages between the worlds open with their visions. Now most people had pale souls and their sins were stale.
The day before the picnic, Tracy Jean drove over to the church to make sure that idiot school teacher had returned the fold up tables after the Easter Festival at the elementary school. She got out of her minivan and walked over to sit on the bench under the oak tree. The youth minister was on his way over to let her in. She pulled out her planner and began to write a list for the grocery store. She’d decided to make her mother’s grape jelly cocktail meatballs for the picnic and dashed off the ingredients. She knew the recipe by heart.
The tiny demon sat on a branch above her, eyes rolled into her skull, her body vibrating. Nearly invisible tendrils of drool wafted down into Tracy Jean’s hair and the demon sipped particles of Tracy Jeans’s righteousness up through the connection, little spiked things no bigger than a quark.
That night, Tracy Jean felt terrific. She made the grape meatballs in a fever, her hands moving in patterns above the bowl before plunging into the hamburger and breadcrumbs and massaging the ground flesh between her hands. She sucked grape jelly from the squeeze-bottle and it burned like liquor down her throat. After she switched on her crockpot, she cleaned the refrigerator, ate a handful of meatballs raw and got most of her Christmas shopping done online. Chad would have a fit when he saw the credit card bill. Then she bounded up the stairs and woke him from a sound sleep and serviced him thoroughly. “I love you so much, baby,” he told her before he fell back asleep. Tracy Jean sat up all night in a chair by the window, sewing lace on her t-shirts.
Joshua smelled the meatballs cooking in his sleep and dreamed of his mother floating a few feet above the kitchen floor with his sister’s tiny, shrunken head on a fork.
After the service ended on Sunday, women streamed from the basement of the church to the tables the men were setting up under the pavilion, carrying covered dishes, cakes and pies, platters of chicken. Tracy Jean carried her crock pot full of her grape jelly cocktail meatballs; Chad strode along behind her carrying jugs of sweet tea. He followed her like a calf, thoroughly in love and marveling at the shape of her under her flowered dress. That baby weight was looking good. She set her meatballs next to Charlotte Dell’s deviled eggs that everybody always raved about. Charlotte put guacamole and salsa in with the yolk. People only thought they wanted that kind of food, Tracy Jean told herself. Everything was tinkered with now. Panko breadcrumbs, sliders, chipotle blah blah blah.
The grape jelly cocktail meatballs proved irresistible. Everyone was drawn to them except for Joshua. He filled his plate with deviled eggs under his mother’s glare. He took too many pieces of cake and hid with his food under one of the tables and pretended he was a wolf in his cave.
When the women bit into the meatballs, they tasted ash and boiled blood. When the men bit into them, savory juices ran down their throats and the grape jelly was like nectar. They’d never had anything that tasted so good, like home and whiskey and deer meat from a buck you’d shot yourself. Their eyes rested on Tracy Jean as they chewed. Her frosted bob looked like the gleaming wings of a rare bird, her body a temple of pleasure made just for them. Some of the bolder men stood in an admiring knot around her, tossing out compliments and making her giggle. Chad watched. Seeing her flushed and the looks on the men’s faces soured his stomach. He popped meatballs in his mouth like grapes, masticating furiously.
The women glanced around before spitting mouthfuls of meatballs into napkins. Whispering started and spread like a small brush fire until they were all clustered at the picnic tables at the far end of the pavilion, with plates full of anything but the meatballs. They cast glances over at their husbands, and Tracy Jean, and their hearts smoldered. The teenagers sat together at tables nearby, watching. They thought the meatballs were gross. The elders sat at their own tables, white heads bobbing over their plates. When they ate Tracy Jean’s meatballs, their joints thawed; they could taste their food again and hear each other talk.
In his office, Pastor Davis changed out of his suit and into some jeans and a neatly pressed plaid shirt. He ironed on Friday afternoons. Since his wife died five years ago, ladies of the congregation offered to do it for him, but he liked to stand in the kitchen, his tall, lanky body bent over the ironing board, the iron steaming in his hand. As he buttoned his shirt, a shiver ran through his body; he stood still, his black eyes staring. Up in her tree, the tiny demon arched her back and cawed, a thread of sound lost in the breeze rustling the trees. She’d felt him, a small jiggle in the web she cast. He shrugged off the shiver and finished buttoning his shirt.
The tiny demon pulsated, glowing like a small ember. She could not do more. In this church, there was no bloody Jesus on a cross or saints or candles. This congregation had no questions about the world: it would end with the Rapture and they would ascend to heaven.
The cluster of wives watched Tracy Jean, who was speaking to the husbands in an authoritative voice about exactly which part of Revelations could, and should be, interpreted to mean that Satan might initially look like an alien when he came to walk upon the earth.
“Those meatballs were horrid,” one spit.
“Look at her over there, thinking she’s all that,” said Mary Grace.
“Makes me glad I slept with Chad behind her back in high school,” said a woman everyone called Mouse. They turned and looked at her. “I did. Over the summer before senior year. She was on a family vacation.” For a moment, no one knew what to do with such wanton honesty. Then the confessions poured out, like gas leaking from a valve. Mary Grace admitted she had sex dreams about Pastor Davis and was glad when his wife died. Mouse said she wasn’t really visiting her sister last year. She was in rehab.
“Oh, honey,” said Charlotte Dell, “we already knew that.”
“I can drink just fine, now,” Mouse assured them.
Someone told the group she spit in her husband’s coffee the mornings after they fought. Another revealed that she shoved lipsticks into the leaf lettuce at the grocery store and the cashier never caught her. Charlotte Dell whispered she was sorry she had adopted so many fucking kids. They were stacked up like cordwood in their bunk beds at night. She was starting to lose her mind. Faster and faster came the confessions, until the women were drained and silent. They held hands and walked back over to their husbands.
Pastor Davis stood like a stag, his noble head above the other men. As he ate the last of the meatballs, he stared at Tracy Jean. She looked into his black eyes. He gave her a smile that showed all of his even little teeth. No one had ever seen his teeth before. Tracy Jean sashayed over to him, stood on tiptoe and slowly licked his neck. “I haven’t believed in God for over a decade,” he said in his booming sermon voice. “Every year on my birthday, I pay a dominatrix in DC to piss on me.” Tracy Jean picked up one of his hands and began sucking his forefinger.
Chad snapped. He flew at the Pastor and hit him from the side. Pastor Davis withstood the blow, lurching sideways and spinning to meet Chad head on. No one stopped them as they grappled. The congregation formed a circle and cheered them on. Chad threw a punch that connected with the Pastor’s jaw. They dropped to the ground, Chad with the Pastor in a headlock, struggling to find purchase with his legs and going around the Pastor like the hands of a clock.
The teenagers stood in a fascinated cluster. Those allowed to have phone pulled them out and furiously documented. SnapChat. Youtube, Instagram. Hashtags: #churchpicnic #thatsmypastor #adults. Joshua crept closer and closer, watching his father struggle in the dust, red-faced with his t-shirt hiked up over his big soft belly. His mother, puffed up, licking her lips over and over again. The noon sun blazed down, throwing shards of brightness where it caught on metal. A watch, an earring. The adults were jeering. The tiny demon suddenly popped like a light bulb, instantly burned to a speck of chaff that drifted off on the breeze.
Exhausted, the Pastor and Chad lay spent on the ground. Tracy Jean dropped to her knees next to Chad, probing him for injuries. He swatted her hands away. Pastor Davis offered him a hand and pulled him to his feet. They embraced, clapped each other on the back. No one spoke. The women collected their casserole dishes, their pie plates, their children. The men put the tables away. The teenagers stood texting each other. pastor davis had a boner! i already have 238 likes! this is the best day of my life tbh
No one in Joshua’s family said a word on the drive home from the picnic. Ruth stared straight ahead. Their mom didn’t even notice she had her thumb in her mouth. Joshua had the hiccups. He watched out the window as the fields of corn and soy went by. He thought about that time he’d had the stomach flu. He had thrown up all day, watching cartoons on the couch in the family room with the blue bucket his mom used for mopping next to him. That night, when the sun was going down, his dad brought home ginger ale and saltines. Joshua had felt so empty, like that old deer skull he’d found in the woods one time. No meat or blood left. Just clean white bone. As he had sipped warm, sweet soda and ate a salty cracker, he’d felt like a whole different person. Right now was like that, in the quiet car. It was better than looking at all of the stars on his Sunday School paper.
Julie Geen’s fiction and creative nonfiction has been published in anthologies, and she has written for Style Weekly and Belle magazine. She received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2018 and currently teaches English at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology and works as a community liaison for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award.