Mandatory, once a week group therapy sessions were Arden and Benny’s least favorite thing about the Center, and that was really saying something. Arden hated it because they were lumped in with the boys group, and they didn’t have anyone that they could talk to there. Benny hated it because group therapy was in the back room of the Center’s chapel, so just being there caused him and Arden a bit of pain. And they both hated having to listen to the counselor, Theodore “Call Me Ted” Williston, talk about redemption and condemning the devil, which always led into him ranting about how homosexuality was wrong and a whole lot of other outdated opinions that made Arden want to punch the guy and Benny want to strangle him with his own guts.
Right now, Call Me Ted was going on one of his usually gross rants that Arden had completely zoned out on. As soon as they heard him say “abortions are a sin,” Arden tuned Ted out and listened to Benny’s raging murder fantasies. It was the only way that Benny could express himself violently without getting them into trouble, and since most of them were about Ted, Arden actually enjoyed them.
…You can just tell that this guy is the kind of guy that threatens a girl as soon as she rejects him. Probably sends those disgusting ‘dick pics’ that some humans send … if he ended up in my corner of Hell, I’d have him get stabbed by hot pokers by demons that look like all the women he’s ever harassed.
That’d be a long list of women, Arden said with a small smirk.
Probably any woman that’s ever been in the same room as him, Benny joked. Arden laughed but quickly coughed to try to cover it up. They flinched when Ted stopped talking. They could tell he was staring at them.
“Is something funny over there, Arden?” Ted asked, his voice icy. He never hid the fact that he didn’t like Arden – they rarely participated in group therapy, they would sometimes mutter under their breath and refuse to repeat what they said. Since most of their muttering was a reply to Benny, it was for the best that they didn’t repeat it.
“No, sorry,” Arden said, “Something just got caught in my throat.”
Burning, penis shaped poker stabbing Ted through the throat, Benny mused quietly. Arden fought to suppress a grin.
Dude, stop, Arden said. Heavy footsteps came up to stand in front of Arden. Ted had gotten up from his chair and was standing in front of them. They could almost picture him towering over them, trying to be intimidating in a way that just didn’t work with Arden. Even the man’s soul wasn’t intimidating – for a guy that claimed to be an upstanding and moral person, his soul dimly flickered like a dying flashlight that you had to keep hitting to make work.
“No, Arden, you were laughing,” Ted said, “I want to know what it was that I said that was so funny.”
Oh, please tell him the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church! Do you know how many guys like him end up in Hell? I’m pretty sure we get more religious zealots down there than murderers, Benny said. Arden shook their head.
“Nothing’s funny. Sorry.”
Ted sighed in a tone he did when he was annoyed and disappointed. Arden heard his heavy footfalls walked away and the metal chair creak as he folded it up.
“That can be enough for today. You can all go up to the front for service with Father Gabriel,” Ted said. The metal chairs all scraped against the floor as the rest of the boys picked up them up and put them over against the wall. Arden stayed sitting until everyone else was on their way out of the room before they took their chair over. They didn’t like going at the same time as the others – more than once they had been hit in the back of the leg with a chair ‘by accident.’ Nobody here liked them.
Not your fault, Benny said, not for the first time, It’s just like the kids at school – they sense something’s off with you. You’re possessed, and even if they don’t know that, they can tell there’s something about you to fear.
“I know,” Arden muttered, setting down their chair and running their hands along the wall to find their way to the door, “Doesn’t make me feel better, though.”
I’ll stop talking so much in group therapy, Benny offered, I keep getting you in trouble.
Just be less funny. I kind of need something to focus on when Ted goes on about illegal immigrants and stuff, Arden admitted.
Yeah, Ted is not a good dude, is he? Benny asked, sounding disgusted.
Definitely not, Arden agreed. Neither of them acknowledged the irony of a child stealing demon judging a regular human that was just kind of a dick.
Maybe you should try resting during service? Arden suggested, I know it’s hard with the burning pain but maybe you should try taking some time to recharge?
Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.
Arden nodded as they sat down at the pew nearest the back of the church, as far away from the crosses as they could get. Even though they couldn’t see them, their skin felt hot and uncomfortable whenever they were near them, like holding their hand over a fire pit. Being in the church wasn’t great either – even being as far back as possible, Arden still felt hot pins and needles running through their skin, especially in the scars on their forearms. Benny was weakened in the church, and Arden could feel that he was in pain just being there, but he rarely said anything about it.
As they settled in, Arden felt Benny fade away into their subconscious. Whenever either of them needed some time alone, Benny would hide there. It was fine for a little while, but after he had been in there Arden would have crazy dreams later that night. But during the day, it was a good way to let Benny rest and give Arden some alone time.
Arden sat in silence for a while as everyone in the chapel waited for the girl’s therapy group to finish up so that Mass could begin. They closed their eyes and leaned back, trying to enjoy the quiet in their head, but feeling too uncomfortable to fully appreciate it. They were sweating like crazy through their shirt and unzipped their sweater. Was the furnace on or something?
The pew creaked beside Arden, surprising them. Misty’s warm soul and hazelnut shampoo made them smile through the burning pain.
“Are you alright?” Misty asked quietly. Arden shrugged.
“Just not feeling great,” they admitted, “Churches make me uncomfortable.”
“I know that, but you look like you’re about to pass out. And you’re sweating like crazy. Are you sick?” Misty asked. She surprised Arden again by putting her hand against their forehead, feeling their temperature. Her hands felt ice cold against their skin.
Arden realized that she had a point. They never felt this bad in the church. The burning feeling was usual, but felling like they were going to be sick was new.
“I don’t know. I haven’t been sick in a long time,” Arden admitted. It had been about fourteen years since they last got sick – one of the few benefits of Benny. They weren’t sure how or why, but he kept them healthy.
“Maybe you should go to the nurse,” Misty suggested, “Come on, we can skip service. I’ll take you. Brad will let us leave, he’s cool.”
Arden felt relieved and they let Misty lead them out of the church, whispering to the guard that Arden was about to be sick. Officer Brad didn’t hesitate to let them leave, which must have said something about how bad they looked. They expected the feeling to go away as they got out into the hallway, but it only got worse. They stumbled and leaned against the wall, groaning. Their stomach was twisting in painful knots and their legs were starting to cramp up.
“Oh, what’s happening?” Arden groaned. Misty put her arms around them and kept leading them down the hallway.
“You’re alright, Arden. We’re nearly there,” she said reassuringly. In the back of their head, Arden felt Benny stirring.
What’s going on? Benny asked. A wave of nausea hit Arden and they clapped their hand to their mouth.
“I’m gonna puke,” Arden said urgently, voice muffled behind their palm.
“Shit, right here, right here,” Misty said, pushing open a door and leading Arden to a stall. The door slammed shut behind Arden as they dropped to all fours and hurled into the toilet.
“Just get it out, Arden,” Misty called, “I’ll go get the nurse. Stay here!”
The bathroom door opened and closed, leaving Arden and Benny alone to vomit.
What’s wrong with you? Benny asked, sounding concerned.
“Probably something I ate,” they muttered, feeling some more vomit making its way up their throat, “Oh, goddamn it.”
Benny whispered reassuring words to Arden, talking them through it. It seemed like they were never going to finished throwing up. They hadn’t felt this horrible since Benny had first taken over their body…
Was this you? Are you making me sick? Arden asked, unable to speak out loud.
No! No, I swear it’s not me, Benny said, sounding surprised. Arden thought he sounded a little weak too.
Are you feeling okay? Arden asked.
Really tired. Was the church extra holy today or what? Benny said. Arden just shook their head, not sure if it was the church or something else.
Their gut told them it was something else.
The door opened again and two sets of footsteps came up behind Arden. Finally feeling like they were out of vomit, the pulled away from the toilet and leaned against the stall doors, their hair plastered against their forehead from sweat.
“You still alive in there, Arden?” Misty called. Arden slowly stood up, the floor warping beneath their feet. Even Benny groaned.
“Barely,” Arden said, opening the door.
“Must have been something you ate,” the nurse’s voice chimed in. Arden couldn’t remember her name – they had never needed to go see her, so they never learned it, “Same thing happened last week. One kid got a bad batch of food. You should have puked most of it out of your system. Let’s get you to my office and you can lay down for a bit.”
Arden nodded and Misty put her arm around their shoulders to lead them out of the bathroom.
Arden, wait, Benny said. Arden paused and felt Misty tensed up, probably worried they were going to be sick again.
There’s something in the showers. Something bad, I can feel it, Benny said. The showers were away from the toilets, near the sinks. Arden tilted their head towards the showers, feeling something over there. It was faint, but something over there felt cold and … and not right. They weren’t sure how else to explain it. This was a new feeling.
“I just want to wash up first,” Arden said, “Feel like I’ve got puke all over my face.”
“That’s a good idea,” Misty agreed, leading them over to the sinks. Arden leaned against the sink and turned on the water, splashing their face.
What is it, Benny?
I don’t know. I need to see it. It’s in the shower.
Arden could hear water dripping from the shower behind them. How were they supposed to go over there and look at whatever was hiding in the shower without making Misty and the nurse suspicious?
Puke again. Run to the shower because it’s closer than the toilet, Benny suggested.
Smart, Arden said, This is why I keep you around.
Benny snorted and Arden slapped their hand up to their mouth again and gagged, swearing. Trying to look panicked, they spun around and went to the shower, pulled the curtain back and dropping to their knees, retching but obviously nothing coming up.
“Oh, damn,” Arden muttered, sitting back on their feet, “Sorry. I thought there was more.”
Misty and the nurse didn’t say anything. Arden turned their face towards the shower. The edges of their eyes started to turn cold as Benny gained control, forcing their blindness away. Pin pricks of pain jabbed at the back of Arden’s eyes as they slowly gained their vision.
“Holy shit!” Misty screamed, making Arden jump. The nurse started screaming too, and they heard her take off out of the door yelling for help. Arden’s eyes finally could see, and they instantly wished that they couldn’t.
Strung up from the shower head was a guy that looked to be in his twenties. His arms were outstretched, huge metal spikes through the palms of his hands and his chest, holding him up against the wall. His stomach had been torn open, blood and guts spilling out onto the floor of the shower. Blood dripped from his mouth, and Arden realized that it wasn’t water that they had heard earlier.
“Oh my god Arden,” Misty said, pulling them up to their feet.
“What? What’s going on?” Arden asked, keeping their eyes on the shower scene. They weren’t sure how long Benny could hold their vision, and they wanting to get as much of the horrifying scene committed to memory as they could.
“It’s Bruce. It’s Bruce, the murdering guy, the guy that we ran into in the hallway!” Misty cried, nearly hysterical, “He’s dead! He’s so, so dead!”
“Misty, it’s alright. It’s alright!” Arden said, reaching out to her. She buried her face into their chest, her curly black hair tickling their chin and they hugged her, still staring at the shower.
Arden. The floor. Look, Benny said, turning their eyes to the shower floor. In bright red spray paint, a massive, detailed demonic symbol was painted under Bruce’s dangling feet, blood dripping down on it.
Do you know what that symbol means? Arden asked. Their vision slowly slipped away, leaving Arden in blackness. Benny didn’t say anything.
Benny. Answer me. What was that symbol?
A summoning symbol. One I helped create years ago, Benny admitted.
What does it summon? Arden asked, almost scared of what the answer might be.
My brother. I made that symbol to lock him away. Someone’s trying to bring him back.
“Oh, hell,” Arden murmured.