Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between

Excerpt: “Personal Demons”

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“You can’t not help them. It’s a textbook case of possession.” Deborah Paxton set the mugs on the lacquer tray with a double thump. It was Deb’s idea of punctuation—double period, subject closed, nothing more to be said.

Which was just as well, since Anita didn’t trust herself not to scream. She wanted to grab her lover by the shoulders and shake her until her perfectly bleached, perfectly straightened teeth rattled in her head. How could you ambush me like this? This is my home, the one place I felt safe.

But that was the problem. The two-story bungalow clinging to the hill below Alexandria’s Masonic Memorial belonged to Deb. Anita only lived here—and the way things were going, not for much longer. The thought cut like broken glass and hurt worse.

She peered through the kitchen doorway at the man and thirteen-year-old girl perched on either side of Deb’s sleek leather and chrome sofa. Rob Garcia’s mouth widened in a smile composed of equal parts hope, embarrassment, and pure terror. In contrast, his daughter Julie seemed unnaturally poised, her pale eyes opaque.

Like basalt…no, not rock—obsidian…oily…lightless…and very, very old.

A bad sign.

Part of her disagreed.

She turned her attention back to her lover. “It’s not that simple, Deb. If the girl’s possessed by a…” she couldn’t bring herself to say “demon.” “If she’s really possessed, we’re talking sorcery. The real thing—gods and devils here, with us, on the material plane. You have no idea what that means.”

“I think I do. It means you still haven’t forgiven me for the Psychology Today article.” Deb shot Anita a wounded puppy look across the bag of Florentines. The grapefruit top notes of her perfume filled Anita’s nose, turning the comforting aroma of brewing coffee into something bitter. “Have you?”

“Not now. The Garcias—”

“Can wait. This can’t.” She slid the cookies onto the plate. Rustle, rustle, thud, thud, thud. “We’ve got to talk about it sometime.”

Why? You’re doing enough talking for both of us. Anita kept the thought to herself. Deb read any kind of response as encouragement.

“Don’t go all stoic on me, Anita. The way you keep running from the issue isn’t healthy—for either of us. It feels like you’re running away from me, and it’s tearing me apart.

“I never thought the clinic would fire you for being a tantrika. It’s not as if you were practicing on their precious patients. They would’ve been better off if you had. God knows, modern medicine hasn’t done them any good.” Deb cocked her head in the direction of the living room.

“The clinic didn’t fire me. They didn’t renew my contract. There’s a difference. Besides, it’s not as if nursing jobs are hard to find. I’m just looking for something that doesn’t involve shift work.”

“Right, and I’m Mother Theresa. No, wait,” Deb said, touching her forefinger to the center of her chin, “that’s you!”

Her mouth puckered as if for a kiss. Anita dug her toes into her slip-ons, fighting the urge to react—to slam the counter, if nothing else. But she wouldn’t give Deb the satisfaction.

“Look, I admit I shouldn’t have asked the Garcias here without consulting you, but you’ve been so miserable. So defeated. I had to do something. I thought if you could help them it would give you something better than your old job. It could be the start of a whole new career. With your R.N. and this, you could write your own ticket.”

Ticket to what? A new career as a board certified nurse practitioner with a subspecialty in exorcisms? Anita could see the sign on the door now: Anita Lung, Witch Clinician, Demon De-Possession by Appointment Only. The image was like a double shot of migraine pumped straight to her frontal lobes.

And Deb was smiling. She plainly thought she’d come up with the perfect solution to everything. Anita didn’t need telepathy to hear the mental italics, either. All she needed was that painfully supportive smile. Her partner—of all people!—still didn’t get it.

That Psychology Today article was the professional equivalent of outing her against her will. Sure, it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. Sure, the photos only showed her altar, her equipment or her hands. But who needs to see your face when they know where you live and who you live with?

She’d have been better off if Deb had outed her. Her sexual orientation didn’t reflect on her professionalism or her judgment. Her former employers would’ve ignored it rather than face the prospect of a fat settlement and the perfect storm of bad publicity that would’ve followed. What they couldn’t ignore was the revelation that one of their nurse practitioners—an “educated person” with access to dangerous drugs and medical machinery—practiced “black magic mumbo jumbo” in her free time. There was no way to turn it into an opportunity, either. The new line might be “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to earn a living,” but that didn’t make it any less deadly.

It was a miracle Garcia hadn’t reported Deb the minute she suggested a tantric sorceress. He must be crazy, desperate, or desperately crazy, she decided. Unfortunately, he didn’t look crazy. He looked like the poor schmuck stuck behind door number two with the five hundred pound Siberian tiger.

Just because he’s desperate doesn’t mean it isn’t something simple, something Ms. Fix-It ignored in her rush to make good. Holding tight to that thought, Anita searched the view framed by the kitchen window for a better omen than her pounding head and the sinking feeling in her gut. Nothing appeared in the green-handed arms of the maple trees. The gray afternoon sky was as dim and flat as on old mirror. There wasn’t even a cloud to misinterpret.

The gods must be seriously pissed at her.

(To read the rest of the story, check out “Personal Demons” in the anthology Hellebore & Rue.)

Black and white illustration by Ed Coutts from the reprint of “Personal Demons” in Hellfire Lounge 5: Purgatory Potpourri.