Word was that the missionary kid had a demon, though no one was supposed to know. The Boyd family was visiting East Winder only for the weekend, and already eight-year-old Prudence had heard it from her younger sister, Grace, who heard it from her new friend, Anna, whose father was going to cast it out. Prudence figured that a cast-out demon would look like a puddle of split pea soup the size of a welcome mat, and that it would move around the room, blob-like, trying to absorb its way into people. Her own father, the Reverend Yancey Boyd, didn’t believe in demons or in talking about demons except to say he didn’t believe in them, end of discussion.
“The demon made Ryan Kitter paint himself purple all over,” Grace said.
“All over?” Prudence asked, “even his privates?”
“That’s how they found him,” Grace said. She was six. “The paint dried up and he was crying because it hurt him to pee.”
The girls stood in front of the mirror in the spare room at the Moberlys’ house. It was the afternoon of November first, and that night there was an All Saints Day party for kids at the First United Methodist, where the Reverend Yancey Boyd might be the new minister. Prudence was busy cutting a slit for Grace’s head in a piece of old brown sheet. Everyone had to go as someone from the Bible, so she was turning Grace into John the Baptist with his head on a platter.
“There’s no such thing as demons,” Prudence said, only because she hadn’t been the one to hear the story first. She hacked at the sheet with scissors, the blades dull as butter knives. When she managed a hole, she threw the sheet over Grace’s head.
Ryan Kitter’s whole family were missionaries. They had returned from Africa ahead of schedule, due to the demon, and were camping in the church basement until they found a house. They got to cook on hot plates and take sponge baths. Prudence thought that if anyone deserved to camp in the church basement it was her own family, since her father was the one who might be the minister. He’d been ordained in three states. At the Moberlys’ house, the girls were stuck in a dark, damp room that smelled like motor oil. Before the Moberlys had done it over for their daughter, who was grown, it had been a garage, and twice already Prudence had seen centipedes, one rippling into a crack between cement blocks, one behind the framed picture of Jesus over the bed.
“Ryan likes to be in a dark room,” Grace said, pushing her head through the hole in the sheet. “And he doesn’t talk to anyone except his mother.”
“Well, maybe he doesn’t have anything to say,” said Prudence, regarding her with a frown. Grace still looked like herself, only in a brown sheet, now, blond hair coming out of her braid, and nothing like John the Baptist.
In the picture over the bed Jesus wore a robe with billowing sleeves and a rope belt, and Prudence needed something to tie around Grace’s waist. She rummaged through the cardboard box of odds and ends that Mrs. Moberly had provided. At home in North Carolina, their mother kept old towels and drapes in a trunk, and a drapery cord would have done the trick. But at home they would not be dressing like Bible characters for a party; instead they would have already gone trick-or-treating the night before. They would have worn last year’s outfits switched around—Prudence as a floor lamp, Grace as a blue crayon—since their mother wasn’t in any kind of shape to make new ones. Here in East Winder, Kentucky, no one was of a mind to trick-or-treat, because Halloween was pagan.
“Ryan’s father thinks he has a demon and his mother isn’t sure,” Grace said. “They took him to doctors, but a doctor can’t do anything against a demon. Anna saw a man with a demon swallow a sword in Tennessee. She saw another demon bend a man in half when her dad tried to cast it out.”
Prudence made it a point not to be interested. She said, “Really?” and “Hmmm,” as she unearthed a scarf and tied it around Grace’s waist, so that the ends hung down, then pulled and tucked at the sheet. She put her hands on her hips and stepped back to look. “Not bad,” she said. “We’ll draw you a beard with eye pencil, but you’ve got to have a knife or a hatchet or something to make it look real. And a platter.”
Mrs. Moberly stood barefoot in front of the kitchen sink, peeling apples for a pie. Her feet were puffy, and they smooched against the linoleum. It looked like she’d picked her baby toenails clean away. Prudence’s mother, who was still sleeping upstairs in the Moberlys’ bedroom, had always told Prudence to keep her shoes on; if anyone wanted to see her bare feet, they would ask.
“How’re the costumes coming?” asked Mrs. Moberly through a mouthful of apple peel. She wore a blue and white checked apron and had made covers of the same material for the toaster, coffee-maker and some other small appliance that Prudence couldn’t make out by its shape.
“Fine,” Prudence said. “Could we please borrow a meat cleaver?”
“A meat cleaver?” Mrs. Moberly’s hands stopped, knife poised over a peeled, cored apple. It looked naked and cold. “What Biblical character used a meat cleaver?”
“It’s a secret,” Prudence said, before Grace could open her mouth.
“A meat cleaver in church? I don’t think so,” said Mrs. Moberly. “Someone could get hurt. How about another idea? How about you go as a shepherd? Mr. Moberly has an old cane somewhere. Or Mary? Mary never used a meat cleaver.”
“No one’s using it,” Prudence said.
“Meat cleavers are sharp,” said Mrs. Moberly. “Meat cleavers are not toys. I don’t think your mother would be happy if I allowed you to go to church with a meat cleaver. She’s not feeling very well as it is.” Mrs. Moberly sliced the apple into eighths in four deft strokes. “Your father tells me she likes apple pie.”
“She’s feeling fine,” Prudence said. “She’s just tired.”
Mrs. Moberly looked at Prudence and smiled in the way adults sometimes smiled at Prudence, lips peeling back from patiently clenched teeth. Then Mrs. Moberly smiled at Grace, who looked at her feet. “What’s that you’re wearing, Grace?” Mrs. Moberly said. “Let me guess. You’re Mary Magdalene, or Ruth.”
Grace shook her head.
“A man,” Grace said.
“It’s a surprise,” Prudence said again. “How about some tin foil? We could save it and you could use it again to cover something.”
“Tin foil I can do,” said Mrs. Moberly, and handed her the box. “Listen, girls,” she said, smiling again. “What do you think of your visit so far? Think you might like to live here?”
“We won’t live here,” Prudence said. “We’ll have a parsonage like at home.”
“Well, yes,” said Mrs. Moberly. “That’s what I meant. East Winder’s quite a town. I think living here would do your mother a world of good.”
Prudence stared at Mrs. Moberly and raised her left eyebrow, something she’d taught herself how to do. Mrs. Moberly’s eyes did not seem to be any real color. Under one eye, Prudence could see a tiny length of blue vein beneath Mrs. Moberly’s skin, like a fading pen mark.
Mrs. Moberly blinked at her once and turned to Grace. “How about you, dear? Wouldn’t you like to live here?”
Prudence answered for Grace as she pulled her towards the kitchen door. “We don’t care,” she said in her boredest voice.
I don’t care was what their mother had to say about moving. Her name was Joyce, and I don’t care was what she said about many things, usually at the end of a long, tired sigh. Then she’d talk on the phone to her sister, Char—who wasn’t saved—and go to bed in the middle of the day, sometimes for days in a row, and when Prudence went in to lass her goodnight she’d already be asleep and smelling like damp books. Yancey said it had to do with the baby who died before he was born in August, but when Aunt Char came to stay for a week she said no. She said this was Joyce in college all over again, or just Joyce waking up, finally, and coming apart, which he should have expected. Yancey said what’s that supposed to mean, and Aunt Char said it means nothing, nothing at all, and that Joyce had made her bed. (Joyce used to testify, proudly, that her family in Greenville thought she was crazy for loving the Lord. She’d been raised a twice-a-year churchgoing Methodist, not evangelical. Yancey’s preaching had been what saved her before they got married, and Prudence could tell that Aunt Char didn’t like that fact one bit.)
Back in the spare room Prudence emptied out the cardboard box of odds and ends. She cut the box apart at the folds, traced the top of Grace’s head in the center of one of the long sides, cut out the circle and finally taped on sheets of tin foil. Then she fitted the whole platter over Grace’s head and bunched part of the sheet into the hole at her neck to hold it steady.
Grace squinted at herself in the mirror.
“Do your head this way,” Prudence said, leaning her head to the side and fluttering her eyelids. “Try to look like you just got your head cut off.”
Grace stuck out her tongue and said, “Blllhh.” Her head lolled to the side. Then she shrugged her head out of the platter and began cutting out a long, curved knife shape Prudence had drawn on another piece of cardboard. “They tried sending Ryan Kitter to regular school last week,” Grace said. “He went to first grade with Anna King.”
“Hmmm,” said Prudence. She peered into the Moberlys’ closet where she’d already found her own costume. Behind the coats and jackets and Mr. Moberly’s old suits hung several leotards clipped to hangers with clothespins, and one pink tutu, the tulle gone flat and limp as a newspaper, all from when their daughter had taken ballet. Inside a box underneath the pink tutu, Prudence had found a spangly halter top with matching tights and a long, gauzy skirt, store tags still attached.
Now Prudence took out the costume and laid it on the bed. The halter was red with long sleeves and tiny round mirrors sewn on and yellow embroidery everywhere. The neck and sleeves had silky yellow fringe, and at the bottom edge, just above where her belly button would show, the fringe ended in tiny wooden beads that clacked softly against each other.
“In the lunchroom he stood at the trash can and ate all the bread pudding and creamed spinach that nobody wanted, and when the teacher caught him and made him stop, he cried. Then he threw up, then he threw a fit and they took him right out of school.” Grace stopped cutting, her scissors wedged deep in the cardboard, and eyed the costume. “Ooooh. Who are you again?”
“Salome,” Prudence said. “The one who asked for your head on a platter.”
Prudence slipped off her pants and pulled on the tights and skirt. She did a practice kick out to the side, and the gauzy material traveled up into the air with her leg then floated down. It was see-through. In the picture Prudence had seen in a book in her father’s study, Salome was a dark-skinned, smiling, barefoot girl with her hair pulled back, wearing an outfit a lot like this one. Her arms had been raised high above her head, her body in mid-sway, a gentle version of the bump-and-grind Prudence had perfected from a dance show on television, before her father found out she was watching.
No wonder the king had wanted to give Salome anything she wanted. Prudence had curly dark hair, too—almost black—and now she pulled it into a ponytail so tight it made her eyes slanty. She moved her hips in a little circle and waved her arms, first out in front of her, then to her sides, then over her head.
“Does Mrs. Moberly know you’re wearing that?” Grace said.
“Mrs. Moberly is a pain.”
“I want to be someone who dances.”
“You can’t dance if your head’s cut off.”
“You’re not even supposed to dance,” said Grace, and it was true, though the Reverend Yancey Boyd said it wasn’t because of dancing itself, but what dancing led to.
“This is different,” said Prudence. “It’s pretend.”
Grace crimped tin foil onto the blade of the cardboard knife and began coloring the handle black with a magic marker. “Once a demon gets in, you act different,” she said. “They get in when you get cut open and bleed. Anna’s not allowed to have her ears pierced. In Africa, Ryan was crossing the street with their house woman and they got hit by heathens in a truck. They were holding hands and she died and he broke his arm. The bone was sticking out through his skin, and that’s when it happened. Demons sneak in wherever they can, and someone has to get them out so you can go back to the way you were. Tonight Anna’s dad is going to get the demon out of Ryan. It’s a secret, because it’s not that kind of church, but Anna’s dad says it should be.”
Prudence had the halter on over her shirt, and she was stuffing the bosom with Grace’s dirty undershirt from the day before. “Stop talking about that,” she said. “At the party they’ll have to guess who we are, so I’ll go first and do my dance, then I’ll stop and say, “Cut off the head of John the Baptist, voice crying in the wilderness, who eats locusts and honey, and give it to me on a silver platter.” Then you come on up and stand beside me.”
“What do I say?”
“You don’t say anything. We’ll have the knife on the platter and ketchup for blood and you just walk like this,” Prudence staggered around the bed. “You could collapse, maybe, or just follow me away. Wait and see. Everyone else will be Mary and Joseph and Noah or some other dumb thing.”
“A demon could have gotten into Mom when the baby came out,” Grace said.
Prudence stopped staggering. “No,” she said. “She is just very tired. She just needs her rest.” Prudence kept looking at Grace until Grace nodded. Then Prudence pulled up her shirt to see what the halter would look like against her stomach.
“Ryan has a demon of shock,” Grace said.
Prudence sucked in her stomach until it looked hollow. Sexy. She turned her back to the mirror and looked over her shoulder for the rear view.
“Mom could have a demon of tiredness,” Grace said.
Prudence kept sucking in her stomach until it hurt. “Don’t say that anymore,” she said, gritting her teeth. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
The Reverend Yancey Boyd had eyes so light they almost weren’t blue at all, and wavy hair close to his head, and when he talked he sounded wise. Aunt Char said that Joyce married him because he looked like Paul Newman, and because he was sincere, though she said it was no excuse. Prudence was used to women going weepy around him, so it was no surprise when at dinner Mrs. Moberly started sharing the heartache of their daughter.
Belinda Moberly had grown up and gone to college, began Mr. Moberly (a good, evangelical college, put in Mrs. Moberly), and under the influence of a philosophy professor, said Mr. Moberly (who was later fired, said Mrs. Moberly), she’d first become a Unitarian, and then an atheist. And she was living in sin, out of wedlock, with a firefighter.
“We did our best,” said Mrs. Moberly. “I don’t know what else we could have done.”
Over the table hung a low, stained-glass chandelier that Mrs. Moberly had made in a class, which cast a ring of tiny yellow crosses around the walls of the wood-paneled dining room.
“She has a good foundation,” the Reverend Yancey Boyd said to Mrs. Moberly, and he patted her hand. The patting of hands was usually Joyce’s department. She took care of the comforting while Yancey did the talking. It wasn’t a good idea for him to touch too many women. He was that handsome. “When children have been brought up in the Lord, He marks them for life. Children—” Yancey passed a hand over Grace’s blond head—”have their own kind of openness to the Lord. They may grow up and try other roads, but something inside them always knows better. I believe your daughter has a great advantage.”
The Reverend Yancey Boyd sounded encouraging, but he looked sad. Before supper Prudence had found him sitting on the bed beside Joyce, trying to make her eat some crackers from the tray Mrs. Moberly had fixed. Prudence couldn’t see her mother’s face, but she could hear her whispering how she shouldn’t have tried to come, and Prudence had seen how the curl she’d put in her hair the day before, for the trip, had flattened out against her head.
“I don’t understand it,” Mr. Moberly was saying about his daughter. He was a plumber with shoulders so wide that Prudence didn’t see how he could crawl under any sink. He split a biscuit in half and buttered it, and when he finished he put the whole bottom of the biscuit into his mouth.
“I tell her we want her to be happy,” Mrs. Moberly said, “and she tells me happiness is overrated. She says she’s as happy as she can be and live with herself. I ask her, but do you know Jesus as a personal savior, Belinda, that’s real happiness—you know, Reverend—and she tells me she would believe if she could, but she can’t. I don’t know what to do with her.” When Mrs. Moberly paused to drink her water, her hand shook a little. “I guess we’re not promised we’ll always understand, are we, Reverend?”
The Reverend Yancey Boyd smiled in a way that made him look even sadder. “No,” he said, “we are not.”
Grace picked at her food. She had the nervous hiccups, which didn’t sound like regular hiccups at all, but like breathing with little coughs. And she was chewing at the inside of her mouth, which she wasn’t supposed to do. Once she’d made herself bleed. Prudence nudged Grace with her elbow, and Grace stopped.
By the time they reached the church parking lot that evening, it was dark and cold. The leaves smelled like fall turning into winter. Prudence had stuffed the platter down the front of Grace’s long pink parka like a shield, to hide it, and she’d hidden eye pencil and lipstick and ketchup packets from Burger King in the pockets of her own coat. She’d put pants on over her tights and rolled up the gauzy skirt, too, because she thought Mrs. Moberly might recognize it before their turn.
“Where are the Kitters staying?” Prudence asked, as they walked through the parking lot towards the back entrance.
“Who?” asked Mrs. Moberly.
“The boy with the demon,” said Grace, stomping up the cement steps to the door.
“What?” Mrs. Moberly said. She shifted a Tupperware container of cookies to her other hand and held open the church door. Inside she squatted down beside Grace and peered into her face. “What demon?”
“Never mind,” Prudence said. “What do the Kitters sleep on? Do they have a bed or just nap mats? Do they have a sofa and chair and television or just Sunday school furniture?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Mrs. Moberly said. “I haven’t seen it. It’s their home, you know, for now, until they find a house. You can’t just go charging into people’s homes unannounced, even if they do live in the church.”
“I wouldn’t go charging in,” Prudence said.
“You’re going to have a great time at the party,” said Mrs. Moberly, steering them down the basement steps. “Just think of all the new friends you’ll make here.” Mrs. Moberly spoke in a bright voice and smiled so forcefully her jaw muscles bulged.
They moved down a wide, dim hall towards the fellowship room at the far end, an open door full of light and spilling out muted voices. Three narrow halls branched off on either side of this wide hall, and at these dark openings the air came cool and quiet. Prudence lagged behind and slipped down the last hall before the fellowship room. She tried two doors, but they were locked. She peered through the long narrow windows over the doorknobs, but it was too dark to see anything.
Mrs. Moberly appeared silhouetted at the mouth of the hall. “Did we lose you?”
“No,” said Prudence.
The fellowship room was full of lads and parents. A girl wearing a dingy white sheep hood with ears, her straight hair sticking stiffly out around her face, came right up to Grace and hugged her.
“Hi, Anna,” Grace said. Prudence disliked hugging. She ignored Anna and checked the back of the room where tables had been set up with punch and treats, and the front of the room where kids were jumping off a foot-high wooden collapsible stage.
Mrs. Moberly hovered. “Why don’t you take off your coat now,” she said to Prudence. “It’s warm in here, and look, Anna’s in her costume.”
“I’m cold,” Prudence said. “We both are.” She shivered, for good measure, and so did Grace.
Mrs. Moberly smiled the hard smile.
“It’s very cold in here,” Prudence said. “Someone should probably do something about it.”
If the Reverend Yancey Boyd had been there he would have made her mind Mrs. Moberly, and then he would have marched her back to the house and made her change. He didn’t even want her wearing a two-piece bathing suit that showed her belly in the summertime, much less a skimpy dance costume. But tonight he was the guest speaker at a youth lock-in across town, at the high school gym. Their mother had been the one who’d planned to come to the All Saints Day party.
“I’d be happy to carry those cookies into the kitchen for you,” Prudence said, taking the Tupperware container from Mrs. Moberly.
“Well, sure,” said Mrs. Moberly. “But don’t go running off. You’ll want to meet some girls your age.”
In the kitchen across the hall, a tall, thin woman with red hair was slicing through pans of rice crispy treats. “Are you Al and Debbie’s youngest?” she asked Prudence.
“No,” said Prudence. “I’m Yancey and Joyce’s oldest.”
“Oh yes,” said the woman, “the new pastor’s daughter. I’m Mrs. Spode.”
“He might be the new pastor,” Prudence said, but she said it in a nice way.
“He will be if my husband and I have anything to say about it,” said Mrs. Spode. She lifted out sticky squares with a spatula and stacked them on a plate. “This church needs someone to get it back on track. People get some strange ideas.”
“What ideas?” Prudence asked.
“Oh, nothing for you to worry about,” said Mrs. Spode. “Is there a costume somewhere under that pretty coat?”
“Yes,” Prudence said, but just then a small Mary entered, holding a blue hand towel that was a Mary-headpiece for Mrs. Spode to pin back on. Then another woman led more children into the kitchen because it was almost time to line them up for the costume show. There were two Marys, a Joseph, a Moses with swimming pool kickboards for tablets, a donkey, a sheep, a shepherd, a Noah, and a King David with a paper crown. Mostly they looked like children wearing pajamas.
Prudence found Grace and herded her into the corner. She unzipped Grace’s coat and extracted the foil-covered platter. With eye pencil she sketched on a mustache and was working on the beard when she felt a poke at her shoulder.
“Well, now,” said Mrs. Spode. She reached down beside them and touched the platter. “What’s the story, here?”
“I’m doing her beard,” Prudence said. “She’s John the Baptist.”
“Oh, terrific,” said Mrs. Spode, clapping once. “We don’t have a John the Baptist yet.”
Prudence smudged the pencil marks into Grace’s skin with her fingertips. Grace said, “That’s my platter,” trying not to move her lips.
Mrs. Spode picked up the platter and carefully turned it over in her hands. “I see,” she said. “It does look like a platter. Your head goes into this hole, right here?”
Prudence took the platter from Mrs. Spode, who was frowning, and fitted it over Grace’s head, securing it by tucking in the sheet. Prudence withdrew the curved cardboard knife from her coat pocket and wedged it tightly into the space between the platter and Grace’s neck, at an angle so that it looked stabbing. She was just tearing open a ketchup packet when Mrs. Spode said, “Hold on a sec.”
The other children had begun to gather around Grace. “Who is she?” asked Anna King.
Grace jerked her head to the side and showed them the whites of her eyes. She staggered a few steps the way Prudence had shown her.
“Listen here,” said Mrs. Spode. “This is very clever—”
“Thank you,” said Prudence.
“—but maybe we could do without the blood and the platter and the knife.”
“It’s not real blood,” Prudence said. She turned around to the children staring at them. “It’s not real,” she said. “It’s pretend.”
“Maybe I’d better see your costume, too,” said Mrs. Spode.
“I’m not ready yet,” Prudence said. “I have to do my hair. I have to put on my earrings.”
“Now is a very good time,” said Mrs. Spode.
“Not yet.” Prudence raised her left eyebrow, but Mrs. Spode only raised her own eyebrows and said, “Go ahead and take off your coat, please, miss.”
Prudence slowly unzipped her coat. She kept it closed until Mrs. Spode took it off her shoulders for her. When Prudence looked down she couldn’t see past the halter bosom to her feet.
Mrs. Spode was silent, regarding her. She sucked her lips in against her teeth thoughtfully. Behind Mrs. Spode, the children stared.
Prudence unrolled the waistband of the gauzy skirt until the hem reached her ankles.
“You must be what’s-her-name,” Mrs. Spode said. She closed her eyes, then opened them.
“Salome,” Prudence said. Even though her coat was off and her stomach was bare, she was growing hot. She thought about taking off her pants under the skirt, and decided against it.
“Well,” said Mrs. Spode. She seemed about to say more, but instead she turned to the other children and led them out of the kitchen and into the fellowship room, where the parents had set up folding chairs. She told the Biblical characters to go to the stage one at a time and let people guess, then she returned to the kitchen. She shut the door behind her, but Prudence could still make out the first clapping and laughing.
“Listen,” Mrs. Spode said, squatting down. “These costumes are very creative.”
“I know,” Prudence said.
“The problem is,” Mrs. Spode said, “is that some people might get the wrong idea.”
“It’s in the Bible,” Prudence said. “Everyone knows how John the Baptist died.”
“Not everyone will appreciate the details before them,” said Mrs. Spode. “You’ve just got to trust me on this one.” Mrs. Spode twisted her mouth at Prudence as though she was sorry she had to do what she had to do.
“It’s not fair,” Prudence said.
Against the wall, Grace was chewing the inside of her cheek.
Prudence remembered what she’d heard Aunt Char saying to her mother. “Don’t you ever just want to cut loose?” she said to Mrs. Spode. “Don’t you ever just want to live a little?”
“Oh, baby,” said Mrs. Spode. “You’re something else. You’ve got a row to hoe, I tell you.” Mrs. Spode pressed her hand to her forehead. “Listen,” she said. “How about I go get you a couple choir robes. They’re gold and heavy, and you can be two angels.”
“I don’t want to be an angel,” Grace said. She had a packet of ketchup between her teeth, trying to open it.
Prudence heard Mrs. Moberly before she saw her. She entered the kitchen with a quick, sharp breath that had some voice in it. “Where did you find that?” Mrs. Moberly said, staring at Prudence’s chest, then at the long skirt.
“You said we could use anything,” Prudence said. “You said help yourself.”
“Belinda never wore that,” Mrs. Moberly said, shaking her head. “We put our foot down on that one.”
“We’re Biblical characters,” Prudence said. “You said to come as a Biblical character.”
“I had a bad feeling about this,” said Mrs. Moberly. She turned to Mrs. Spode. “I knew I should have checked to see what they came up with. Reverend Boyd’s preoccupied with his wife sick.”
“She’s not sick,” Prudence said.
Mrs. Moberly opened her mouth, then looked at Mrs. Spode, then closed it again.
“She’s not,” Prudence explained to Mrs. Spode. “She’s very tired and needs her rest.”
“She’s got a little bug,” Mrs. Moberly explained.
“Well, there’s something going around,” said Mrs. Spode.
“She’s not sick,” Prudence said again. “She’s not sick, she’s not sick.” She heard herself speaking over and over, but she couldn’t stop, and she couldn’t seem to say anything else. She clamped her mouth tightly closed, because she thought her voice might be starting to sound like tears.
Mrs. Spode squeezed Prudence’s shoulder. “Look, Mary Anne, I was telling Prudence here that they could put on choir robes—you know those pretty gold ones?—and go as angels. We could even tape on some paper wings, or make halos or something.”
“I think it’s a little late to construct anything fancy,” Mrs. Moberly said.
Grace’s ketchup packet came open and she held it between her teeth, squeezing with her lips so that the ketchup dribbled down her chin and collected in a soft gob on the platter in front of her face. From there it began a slow, red slide towards the edge.
Mrs. Spode opened the kitchen door to check on the show. The children were restless. Noah kicked the donkey, and one of the Marys had stuck the head of a baby Jesus under her robe to nurse. “Looks like I’m needed in there,” she said to Mrs. Moberly. “Those gold robes are in the closet of the upstairs practice room.”
When Mrs. Spode had gone, Mrs. Moberly turned to Prudence and didn’t even try to smile. “You two shed these get-ups right now,” she said, “and then you stay put and be ready when I come back, hear? I don’t want to have to go back and tell your parents you didn’t get to be in the show. I don’t want to have to explain why.”
Prudence kept her mouth tightly closed. She stared into the air just over Mrs. Moberly’s head, and soon Mrs. Moberly was gone. As her footsteps faded up the back stairs off the kitchen, Prudence and Grace were sneaking past the fellowship room, headed down the hall the way they’d come in.
Prudence quickly turned off the wide main hall straight into one of the narrow dark halls of Sunday school rooms. They made two more turns until it was so dark that Prudence couldn’t even see her hand in front of her. The basement went on and on. She remembered a story she heard once, about a maze so confusing that once inside you could turn down every single path you could find and never get it right. You could just keep trying out different turns until you died of hunger, or until whatever kind of animal or monster it was they’d put in the maze to go after you got to you.
The wooden beads on her halter made their small noises against each other, and Prudence wrapped her arms around her middle to still them. She was having a hard time breathing in her regular way.
“Prudence,” Grace whispered. “Where are you?” Grace’s platter bumped against the wall with a dull scraping.
“Here.” Prudence stopped and Grace ran into her; Prudence felt ketchup, wet and sticky on her bare back.
Then Prudence could see her hand again, just barely, because down one of the hallways a light glowed through the long window above a doorknob. Prudence moved towards the light.
“I hear singing,” Grace said.
“Shhhh,” said Prudence, but she could hear it, too. It sounded like five or six people, and Prudence crept towards the door and peered through the bottom of the narrow window.
A small, thin boy with his arm in a cast sat in a Sunday school chair, his eyes closed. Two men and one woman had their hands on the boy’s neck and head. The woman was crying and trying to sing at the same time. They were singing that song about the lovely feet of the mountains that bring good news, which had never made any real sense to Prudence. On the floor were two mattresses made up with sheets and blankets.
“Let me see,” Grace said, but Prudence ignored her. She pressed her forehead against the glass.
“It’s no big deal,” she whispered after a time. “It’s just people standing around a boy. They’re laying hands.” She knew all about laying hands—sometimes her parents touched people while praying for them so the Holy Spirit could move.
Another man and woman had placed their hands on the backs of the people touching the boy’s neck. They all closed their eyes and sang the first verse of “Holy, Holy, Holy,” swaying to the words. The man standing behind the boy began speaking over the singing, but it was hard to make out the words through the door. The boy had opened his eyes and was blinking quickly. The fingers of his good arm fretted at the soft, worn edge of his cast.
“Who are you?” the man said now, loud and deep, clear enough for Prudence to hear. She could feel his voice on the door.
“Help him, Lord,” said another man.
“Yes, Lord,” said a woman.
The first man gripped the boy’s shoulder. “Who are you?” he asked again, and the boy moved his mouth, but Prudence couldn’t hear.
“That’s Anna’s dad talking,” Grace whispered, wedging her face beside Prudence’s.
“No,” said the man. The singing was over and his voice was clear as day. “No. I am not speaking to Ryan, but to the evil within.”
Prudence thought the group looked too ordinary to be casting out a demon. The men were in plain old slacks and jeans, and one of the women wore sneakers with her skirt. Under the fluorescent lights their faces loomed pale and big. Even with their eyes closed they squinted, as if they were all trying very hard to remember something.
“It’s no big deal,” Prudence said again, but she couldn’t stop watching.
Anna’s dad looked up to the ceiling and started to pray. He said how Ryan was not in control of his body. He said the forces of darkness had taken advantage of this little boy’s weakness, and an evil spirit had manifested itself in Ryan’s behavior. He said it was a cowardly thing to use a little boy, but that was the kind of method Satan stooped to. He might look like this little boy and sound like this little boy, but indeed he was something very different, something that really wanted only to destroy Ryan.Impostor, Anna’s dad said, and Prudence felt the word in her stomach.
Prudence pushed Grace away and covered the whole bottom of the window with her face and arms, filling up the glass so her sister couldn’t see. She didn’t know what was going to happen, and Grace sometimes scared easily.
One of the men began to raise his hand over his head, the movement so slow that the hand looked as if it were floating. He turned his face to the ceiling. “Ruler of all,” he said when Anna’s dad paused. “You triumph over evil.”
Ryan began shaking all over. The woman in sneakers opened her eyes.
“The New Testament tells us we have been given the power,” Anna’s dad began again, and Ryan started to cry. He scrunched his face up tiny, whimpering. With his free arm he brought his hand to his shoulder and tried to pick off the fingers that clutched him.
“Please,” said the woman in sneakers. “He’s upset.” She moved her thumb back and forth in the boy’s hair.
“It’s not him,” Anna’s dad said. From above and behind Ryan, he placed his palms on the boy’s cheek. Ryan jerked his head from side to side, but the hands were firm. “What’s being upset are the forces of darkness. Just hold him steady.”
The woman in sneakers sniffled and shook her head. Prudence kept her eyes on Ryan Kitter.
“In the name of Jesus Christ,” said Anna’s dad, “I command you to exit this earthly vessel.” The sound of his voice resounded off the cement block walls even after he closed his mouth.
Prudence held her breath, watching for something to leave Ryan’s body. He went so still she thought maybe he’d fainted. Anna’s dad loosened his grip on the boy’s face. Suddenly Ryan lurched to his feet, yanking his shoulders back and forth to shake off the hands and upending his chair, which skidded across the room on its side. The woman in sneakers cried out, “Ryan,” and a man said, “Oh,” in a soft, surprised way, but nobody moved. They seemed frozen, their hands still outstretched, now hovering over nothing, while the boy made for the door.
Prudence grabbed Grace and pulled her into the back hall and around a corner. The first room they came to was locked, but the door to the second one opened, and they crouched just inside, listening hard. A moment later Ryan pushed through and slammed the door shut, darting into the far corner of the room. The windows near the ceiling gave off a faint glow from the lights of the parking lot, and Prudence could just make out his dark shape against the wall. She listened to him breathing heavy through his nose, and when she heard more footsteps in the hall, she reached up and locked the door.
Then the boy was crying again, moaning softly.
Grace leaned in close to Prudence and clutched her arm as Prudence rose and made her way across the room through the dark, past tables and chairs and an upright piano. She reached out and touched the boy’s head, and he scooted away. It sounded like he was saying “Oh no, oh no, oh no,” over and over. Prudence had heard plenty of kids cry, but this seemed older, like the time she’d been dropped home early from school and found her mother sitting with her forehead on the kitchen table, sobbing, her arms dangling down by her chair.
“Don’t be scared,” Prudence said. “It’s just me and my sister.”
Someone jiggled the doorknob, then knocked on the narrow glass window. Prudence didn’t turn around. A woman called Ryan’s name, her voice muffled.
Ryan kept crying. Prudence’s eyes adjusted, and she could see him huddled against the wall, hunched in on himself.
“Don’t cry,” Prudence said. “You shouldn’t cry like that. You’ll cry your eyes out.” She was watching him very carefully. If there was such thing as demons, and they looked and sounded just like people, she wondered how you were supposed to know when one was gone.
“Ryan?” called the woman at the door, then her footsteps hurried away.
“Do you have a demon?” Grace asked. Her tin foil platter glinted in the streetlight. The edge of it had bent over her shoulder on one side, and her face and neck were smeared with ketchup. The knife jutted out from her neck at a forty-five degree angle.
Ryan looked up at her and sucked in a great, moaning sob.
Prudence knelt down beside him. “It’s ketchup,” she said. Then she thought that maybe they didn’t have ketchup in Africa. “She’s just dressed up,” Prudence said. “She’s John the Baptist.” She told him all about John the Baptist and Salome, how the king liked Salome’s dance so much that he promised her anything, and how Salome’s mother, a spurned woman, had told her just what to ask for. When Prudence finished, she rose and stood in the light from the high window so the boy could see. He’d grown quieter, but when she stopped talking he started to cry again.
“Hey,” Prudence said. “You just watch me. I didn’t get to do my dance before. When Salome dances she gets whatever she wants, and I want you to stop crying.” Prudence began humming a little tune. She started with just her hands and let the movement travel up her arms and into her shoulders, then down her whole body. The wooden beads slapped her stomach.
Ryan’s mouth was open. He looked like a sad boy, sad in a part of him no one could touch. Prudence was thinking that it would be better if there was a demon than if there wasn’t. That way something would be in him and then it would be gone, and he would be all right. She danced in and out of the light, and Ryan’s crying grew softer. She hummed a little louder and danced some more, and soon she didn’t hear him crying at all.
“It’s working,” Grace whispered.
There were footsteps again in the hall, and the faint jingle of keys. In a moment or two the lights would come on and Prudence knew she would be in some kind of trouble. They would be taken back to the Moberlys’ where she would most likely be disciplined, and where her mother lay in the upstairs bedroom, her face to the wall, and there wasn’t anything Prudence could do about it. But as Prudence did a little boogie with her hips, she thought she heard Ryan giggle. Aunt Char had shown her some old-timey dances, and she did what she could remember of the twist, then she started in on the chicken, Ryan and Grace now laughing, laughing hard, gulping in air, their voices high and silly, and when the door opened and the lights came on Prudence closed her eyes and kept on dancing.