by Josh Pearce
From the curtained alcove behind the baptismal pool, Jessie could see the entire sanctuary where Pastor Ron was preaching to the congregation. And, just by turning her head to the right, she could watch through a little hole in the plaster wall as Aida, close to tears, entered the private prayer room backstage with Matt the youth pastor. Door shut behind them. “I looked everywhere, I promise!” Aida said. No one except Jessie and Matt could hear her over Pastor Ron’s amped voice. Jessie twitched the curtain aside just enough to peer out. The worship band had finished and taken their seats, the collection plates had been passed. The ushers stood ready with the communion crackers and grape juice. Jessie saw her parents, left side, halfway back. Her brother, Luke, slouched in the last row with his other loser friends, hiding their phones in their laps.
And right where she always was, aisle seat, Grace. Thick black hair loose today. Behind her glasses, eyes glazed with boredom, daydreaming about something more interesting than Pastor Ron. Aida’s whiny-ass voice cut through Jessie’s own daydream of Grace and prayer rooms and kneeling on the rough gray carpet …
“What are we going to do?”
Whine, whine, whine. Aida had been chosen this week to play devil. There always had to be one; although if something went wrong, Pastor Ron could probably explain its absence with the good ol’ “prowling like a lion” and “the day and the hour are not known.”
“Don’t worry. It’s probably around here somewhere.” Pastor Matt checked under the chairs, but there weren’t really that many hiding spots – the prayer room was only big enough for three or four to sit touching knees in a circle. The rest of the space was occupied by the Wardrobe.
That was a hell of a thing, eight feet tall and stained black, handcrafted by Amish carpenters without any electrical tools – “In the year and manner of our Lord,” Pastor Ron often boasted – hung with the church’s second-best crucifix as though its contents would come alive and walk out on their own. Jessie got a good look at Pastor Matt’s nascent bald spot and frosted tips as he bent to check around the foot of the Wardrobe. Couldn’t find the key to the Wardrobe because it currently hung around Jessie’s neck, under her shirt.
Pastor Matt fished in his pocket for his keyring. Every senior staff had a spare. He slotted it into the lock at Jesus’s feet. Jessie heard the heavy tumblers turn, the wooden door creak on its hinges. The Wardrobe swung fully open, and Aida let out a scream.
Jessie checked through the curtain again. A few sidelong glances, some muttering, but Pastor Ron barreled on. Pastor Matt stepped back in shock. The black, hooded cloak that was supposed to hang within was no longer there – because it was currently draped around Jessie’s body. The kidskin gloves that went with it were the most expensive part of the outfit, soft because the devil’s touch was supposed to be delicate and tempting.
The requisite pronghorn skull mask, gone as well. Jessie reached up with her gloved hands and pulled the mask down over her face. The eyeholes forced her to look sidewise, to move slowly and carefully. No better time than now. She parted the curtain and took a single step forward, into view of everyone. There came a few reflexive gasps at the sight of her but no hysterics; sometimes they got visitors who’d never been to a play devil church and – unforewarned – there’d been fainting, medical emergencies, what Pastor Ron emphasized as “being slain in the spirit.”
Half the fun of the play devil was guessing where and when it would appear. Kept everyone on their toes. Sometimes whoever was under there came out in the middle of worship, cavorting around the guitarists and backup singers, slapping the cymbals, trying to throw off Travis’s rhythm, but Travis had a side gig as a drummer in a jazz band and could incorporate pretty much any polyrhythm into the service of the Lord. No matter what the play devil did, you were supposed to go on about your business in calm resistance. Jessie moved silently to stand with her back to the pulpit. She’d seen enough horror movies to know that unnerving stillness was often most effective.
There was nothing that said the play devil had to do its work in the sanctuary. The youth group boys liked to go for the jump scare, hiding in the commissary or the upstairs office so that by the end of the service without a sign of the devil, everyone was on edge. Pastor Ron had changed the rules to specify that the play devil couldn’t leave church property after that one week when Mr. Sidell with his creepy mustache found an unlocked car in the parking lot and somehow managed to hide in 16-year-old Ellie Freyer’s backseat, pronghorns and all, popping up in her rearview about a mile down the road. Rammed into a parked car, and the cops don’t take, “The devil made me do it,” as much of an excuse.
Where to start? Jessie wanted to mess with Luke but not give away her identity. No one knew who was playing the devil except for the ordained senior staff member who had drawn lots that week. And because Jessie’d taken Aida’s turn, nobody at all knew who was under the mask today. She walked up and down the aisles, offered a gloved hand to Mr. Leonard – who shook his head and said, “Name of Jesus, begone,” and by the rules of the game she had to leave him alone for the rest of the service. Jessie tried to take a Bible out of Theresa MacMillan’s lap, but the lady brushed her hands aside and said sweetly, “Jesus says none of that, dear.”
Continuing on as such for a few more minutes, laying down decoys so she could get right behind Luke without drawing suspicion and flick his ear, sharp. He slumped lower and said, “Get outta here, asshole.” Jessie stifled a giggle and flicked his other ear ‘cause he hadn’t said the right thing. Moved on. Whoops, not that way. Aida and Pastor Matt had come out of the prayer room and were glaring at her – Aida miffed that she’d lost her turn, Pastor Matt probably really ticked off that Jessie had stolen the outfit on his watch; well, she’d argue, not stolen it, just borrowed. Before service ended, she’d escape out one of the side doors, shuck it off, and leave it somewhere easy to find, no harm done, just a little bit of fun. She orbited away from them, sowing bad seeds along the way. Snatched dollar bills from the collection plate and rained them down upon the middle seats. The money filtered back to the ushers, hand-over-hand with quietly invoked, “Name of Jesus, name of Jesus,” not a single one vanishing into temptation, miraculously.
She could hardly tempt all 300-plus congregants individually, but Jessie made a good go of it, climbing over people to get to the center of the rows. Legs and knees shifted out of her way – “Jesus defeat you,” “Jesus protect us” – hands carefully not crowd-surfing her along, eyes averted from the blank holes in her skull. They did a good job ignoring her, staying focused on the message, she thought. Whenever a play devil got too close to her on Sunday mornings, she liked to give it a few extra jabs with her keys or a solid thump with the hymnal. Send a message, build a reputation that she wasn’t fooling around.
This church really got into the whole play devil thing. She’d been to services at her friend Samantha’s church, one of those megachurches out in the valley, where the devil wasn’t scary at all. Rubber animal mask, furry suit. It came out at the same time each time, right after the music stopped, and went up and down the section where all the grade-schoolers sat, offering them candies which they were supposed to refuse. Two kids each service were given honor guard duty and hit the devil with straw brooms until it ran away, properly rebuked. The whole thing more like the Yule Goat tradition than fighting off the forces of evil. Slapstick. Laughter.
Not here, though. Jessie had gotten a scolding one week after the devil poked her ribs and she gasp-giggled out loud, heard over Pastor Ron’s sermon. Never figured out who’d the devil’d been then, but she suspected Ryan S. Or maybe it was Luke. The play devil was supposed to be a double-edged sword. The actor should resist their own urges that came upon them when no one knew who they were. “Character is defined by what you do when no one is watching” was another Pastor Ron favorite. But then, so was, “Jesus is always watching.”
A lady had flashed her breast from underneath the black robe – that’s some temptation for you – and that’d sparked a whole rash of copycat devils for months. Jessie had never seen so much old man junk before. It was threatening to become a real church tradition – everyone averting their eyes, saying nothing – until the police showed up and put an end to that. Some guardian angel, anonymous as all the devils, had called it in.
Stuff like that was easy to stop. Not so much, though, the groping hidden by the cloak folds, the stank breath through the skull mask landing on the base of her neck, the dirty words and confessed perversions pitched in her ear. When all she could do was say, “In the name of,” over and over, her parents right there willfully blind, eyes for no one except Pastor Ron.
That was the last straw, the inciting incident that inspired Jessie’s plan today. If the heavy pawing and pinching could be hidden behind a cloak of morality, then she was going to use their own rules to do what she wanted, and right under their noses. Jessie turned down another aisle. She could see the people before her tense up as they sensed the devil’s approach. And just there, a few steps away, her real goal. Tiny frame, black hair, big glasses. Thin lips that tasted of forbidden adrenaline. Jessie had been planning this for weeks, since that prayer room kiss. Had actually planned to just wait for her next turn to play devil to come around. But after she’d ball-tapped a devil who cupped her left tit and rubbed his crotch into the small of her back – okay, buddy, we get it, you’re demonstrably male – the pastors seemed to be giving her the cold shoulder, and since they were the ones who selected the play devil, at random quote unquote, yeah right, pretty sure she wasn’t gonna have the honor anytime soon. But “God helps those who help themselves.”
The thought of doing it in church, in front of everyone, spiked a throbbing between her legs.
Jessie stopped just behind Grace, saw her knees tremble. She leaned forward until the skull mask was just at the edge of Grace’s peripheral vision. Made her breathing louder so Grace could hear it. Reached out with one soft-gloved finger and stroked the skin beneath the bottom of Grace’s shirt, running it along the entire circumference of her body. Jessie felt the lower cusp of Grace’s belly button with the smooth edge of a fingernail, traced around her ribs to the divot at the small of her back, caressed the firm upswell of the girl’s butt. The muscles clenched under Jessie’s touch, and Grace said, “Please leave me alone.”
Jessie spread her other hand flat across Grace’s stomach, whispered, “You didn’t say the magic word.” Could barely keep from laughing out loud.
“Jesus Christ, Jessie, you’re crazy,” Grace hissed, grabbing Jessie’s hand to stop it from sinking any further into her pants. Panting though, pressing against Jessie, clear and present thrill.
“You said Jesus. Guess that counts.” With a last ass squeeze, Jessie left Grace unsteady on her feet, holding onto the seatback in front of her for dear life.
Pastor Ron was staring at her. Shit. She’d gone too obvious, or too loud. She was going to be the first devil to be unmasked in the middle of a sermon. Think fast. But everyone else was turning to look at her, too, and she could think of nothing else but making a run for it, turned around, saw that they weren’t so much looking at her as in her direction because standing inside the foyer double doors was another play devil. Damn, Jessie thought. Pastor Matt had found a backup outfit somewhere and was going to let Aida have her chance after all. But no, the two of them were still standing to the side, mouths agape.
Murmurs as the second devil drifted around, pausing here and there with the feel of someone sizing up livestock. Pastor Ron said something about the strength of the community and the steadfast, rock-hard faith of this church requiring twice the usual number of devils to even scratch the surface of its resolve. The tension went out of the room and Jessie thought about how every miracle was just really good improv. The other devil’s outfit was nearly identical to hers except it had an impala skull or something with tall spiraling antlers. Jessie edged toward a door that would get her to the kitchen – with everyone distracted she could slip out, change clothes, no one would ever know. Except Grace.
That door opened in her face and there was another devil on the other side. This time Pastor Ron couldn’t hide his own surprise. He faltered in the middle of a sentence, then soldiered on bravely. The other senior staff clustered around Pastor Matt, urgently arguing something, hands to their sweaty goatees. Jessie squeaked as this third devil brushed past her and began its own assessment of the available choices. People were audibly praying, some sinking to their knees. No one was really listening to Pastor Ron anymore.
There were multiple doors to the sanctuary, and each of them opened to let in more devils – three, four, eight, more, all in the hooded cloaks and gloves, different only in their skull masks. They circled the seats like a pack preparing a herd for culling. Jessie had only seen so many play devils in one spot before at harvest festivals when multiple churches got together. Oh my god, Jessie thought, suddenly envisioning mass shootings, I’m going to die wearing this stupid costume. But even then she couldn’t bring herself to take it off. Even just unmasking would be like stripping naked in front of everyone, deeply embarrassing and private. She felt a new warmth on her thighs quite unlike the earlier flush and realized she’d peed herself a little.
The praying rose almost to a frenzy, but everyone fell silent when a last devil entered. Jessie felt a chill prickle down her spine. Must be a bodybuilder under there, to support the weight of the longhorn skull it wore, a devil standing well over six feet tall, and wide as an ox. Its heavy footfalls were the only noise, slow and steady, coming to rest at the bottom of the stage. Pastor Ron gripped the pulpit in terror. Even on his platform, the longhorn devil was eye level with him. It put a foot on the first step.
“In the powerful name of Jesus, I command you out of here,” Pastor Ron finally managed to say and for a second Jessie had the hope that this was all some kind of scam to reinforce the faith, that the devil would just play-act along, turn around, and leave. But then the big devil took another step up, Jessie saw the blank terror on the pastor’s face. One more step and the devil was at the podium. Pastor Ron’s words ceased to be recognizable – he was lapsing into tongues. The longhorn devil lifted off its mask. Its back was to the congregation, and only Pastor Ron could see what was beneath.
He started screaming, fell to the ground, clawing at his own eyes until they burst like grapes and blood ran down his face. The screams went on and on, even after the devil resettled its skull mask and turned to face the congregation. Jessie braced for some proclamation, some death metal lyrics shit, but the longhorn devil returned silently the way it came with the same steady steps which was, Jessie felt, more frightening than anything anyone could have said. She was paralyzed down to the bone. Ron’s screaming dwindled to a whimper.
The rest of the church body, too, was spellbound. The big devil hadn’t taken any sacrificial virgins with it but each of the other devils – impala, goat, ram, and the rest – lighted upon their choices like flies on pale corpses. The strong hands in delicate gloves took hold of the youth pastors, the guitar players, the lady who always set out GOP campaign flyers in the foyer which threatened the church’s tax status, the real ardent assholes. None of them struggled. They were scared of what had been done to Pastor Ron, programmed by years of ritual to play along, hypnotized. None of it seemed like it was really happening, not yet anyway.
One of the devils – small bison horns on a thick skull – made a move toward Grace’s section, toward Grace, Jessie thought, so she stepped forward, grabbed Grace’s arm, and pulled her out of her seat, away from the bison. Grace’s small bird body trembled in her hands, but Jessie didn’t dare any comforting words. The musk of the bison devil washed over them as it passed by and selected someone else.
Every devil paired up with someone and moved to the double doors. Jessie found herself herded in the same direction by two coming up the aisle. To avoid suspicion, she pulled Grace into line with them. Outside, twelve play devils and their chosen ones followed the longhorn mask in a single file down the street. Sunday morning quiet and no other traffic. Jessie and Grace were halfway down the line with no easy way to break away unnoticed.
Grace let out a muffled sob and Jessie whispered, “Hey.” The word echoed up and down the line, repeated by each play devil, so Jessie shut her mouth and didn’t risk saying anything more.
They walked in complete silence until Jessie felt blood in her socks. They passed other churches, and from those came more masked people, leading their own selections like dogs. Where were the police? Jessie hoped desperately to hear sirens. But then again, did she want to be caught like this, dressed as one of them? She looked at the others. Who knew there could be so many types of horned animals?
Hell is underground, isn’t it, so that’s where Jessie expected the line of devils to lead them. Instead, they went through a hole cut in a chain-link fence – Jessie twisted her head to keep her horns from snagging – across a wide unkempt yard, and then into a cinderblock fortress that seemed to absorb all light within it. Grace stepped through the empty black doorway. Jessie hesitated at the threshold – just before she went in, she saw the watchtowers, full of birds. Razor wire and steel mesh windows.
The interior was dim. The single-file line moved deeper into the building, passing by a cafeteria with mold-crusted food trays on the tables. Cells that looked like they’d been tossed and abandoned, all their doors left open. Past latrines with overflowing toilets, shit on the walls, none of it quite dried. But no people. No footprints, no bloody hand smears on the walls. Like a whirlwind had swept through and raptured them all away. Wasn’t there some Bible story about an earthquake and a prison break? She couldn’t seem to dredge it up at the moment.
The farther in they went, the darker it got. She stumbled through laundries, boiler rooms, kitchens, farther and farther away from windows. All the while, the steady sounds of the devil’s boots led them on. The winding path ended in a small room with only one door and a crucifix on the wall, an institutional chapel with a steer skull mounted over the cross. Not even remotely enough room for everyone to fit in and when Jessie saw it was a dead-end, some lizard part of her brain panicked. She spun around to lunge for the exit but the longhorn devil was somehow right there blocking the door – How had it gotten behind her? Jessie’s lizard brain screamed – and then the door shut, and the room went completely black.
She froze. Could they see in the dark? Would it give her away if she groped blindly like one of the now-wailing churchgoers while the play devils stood like silent pillars among them? She reached for Grace’s hand. Found one, gave it a squeeze. Whoever it was squeezed back.
Sudden light now, from behind her as the longhorn devil opened a door that hadn’t been there earlier. Or had it? Maybe she’d gotten turned around in the dark and this was the same door they’d all come in, but no, Jessie was pretty certain she hadn’t moved at all. Trying to triangulate cross, skull, and portal. The door was disorienting to look at – this exit was bright as fire and by its light Jessie saw she was holding a stranger’s hand. Dropped it. Grace was in a corner, eyes closed tight.
Jessie slid through the crowd to get up next to her. The mask kept slipping, hard to check through the eyeholes to see if any devils were watching them. She caught a glimpse of one nearby, saw his shoes, thought wait a minute. The longhorn stood by the fiery door with its back to them. One by one, the weeping sacrifices came to it and watched as it lifted the mask away from its face so that only they could see what was revealed. Some reacted as Pastor Ron had, using their fingernails to blind themselves. All the rest – their expressions went slack, the tears dried, their pupils dilated, and they walked calmly and willingly through the door. Jessie could feel the heat on her eyes as the person’s silhouette burned away like cinders.
Under her black cloak she felt the Wardrobe key, still on a chain around her neck. She pulled it loose, held it between her knuckles, and jammed the metal shaft into the nearest devil’s kidney.
He screamed, collapsed. Grace, too, shrieked as Jessie knelt over the wounded man. Jessie muttering, “What kind of devil wears sneakers, huh? I’m not scared of you. See who you are.” Ripped off his mask to reveal just a guy, a middle-aged man, eyes blown out with fear.
“Don’t hurt me again!”
Jessie held the key right up to his eye, ready to jab it in. Removed her own mask so he could see how pissed she was. She looked to see if the other play devils were going to rush her – if so, she was taking at least this one down with her – but after a few seconds’ delay, each devil unmasked and dropped to their knees, genuflecting toward where the longhorn continued its business. “What is it doing?” she hissed at her hostage.
Grace answered instead. “Threshing. Matthew 3:12. This is the end, the final judgment.” She slid down to the floor, hugging her knees. “I never believed it would all turn out to be so … literal.”
The unmasked devils were sweaty and – the only word Jessie could think of was – caterwauling. She put a hand on Grace’s knee. “It’s okay, come on. It can’t actually be all that. I’ll figure something out. I’ll get us out of here.” She’d promise Grace anything at this point, hollow or not. To the man on the ground she said, “What the hell is going on? Why are you kidnapping people?”
“Please.” He cringed back from her. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I only did what everyone else was doing, to blend in. Otherwise, I thought the devil would get me.”
But you were the devil, she thought, with a sinking in her pit. “So you weren’t guarding us on the walk here?”
He shook his head. “I was looking for a way to escape but I couldn’t figure out how to get away from the others. From you.”
Jessie slumped back beside Grace and dropped her key. “We could have walked away from all of this from the very beginning.”
“Well,” Grace said, “except for that big guy. If it makes you feel better.”
Jessie saw people she recognized – her pastors, friends’ parents – falling blind at the devil’s feet. The most zealous of them all, and none passed through the door. “So what does he want? To take us to hell? And if we’re not to his taste, we die?”
“Live evil or die good,” Grace murmured. “I don’t think I can choose.”
Jessie stood up, pulling Grace to her feet. “This is all bullshit. A scam. That thing doesn’t get to decide naughty or nice. It’s just going along with things like everyone else.”
The man clutched Jessie’s ankle. “It’s not like us! It – he – I think he’s from this place. This is where it all started. From here he goes into churches and takes people – you have to follow behind so he won’t look at you with his naked face. When I saw how many were with him, I kept my head down, and my mask on, and went along. That’s what you do, to survive.”
Jessie kicked his arm away. “Asshole. You’re sacrificing all these people so he’ll let you keep playing devil? To save your own skin? Where does that door go?”
“I don’t know,” he said. Shuddered. “I’m afraid to find out.”
“To hell, obviously,” said Grace.
“Unless we’ve got it backward. What if it’s like an Egyptian thing and he’s weighing who’s worthy to get to the afterlife? That means the people he drives crazy are the evil ones and only the good can pass through the door.”
“That’s not what we learned in church,” Grace said. The girls huddled in the corner and watched. “Hard to tell what the criteria are. I’ve seen pastors die and pastors make it through the door. How are we going to do any better?”
“I don’t think reason is going to help us much more than faith.” She leaned her head against Grace’s. A silent apology.
“There’s nothing you can do,” said the man. “You have to give him what he wants, to keep his attention away from you. Put your mask back on.”
“I’m not going along with this anymore. And I’m not going to send someone else to get their eyeballs ripped out just so I can get away.”
“Jess, maybe we should do what he says. He’s managed to stay alive this long, at least.”
“Following the adults is what got us into this mess in the first place.” She gripped the brass key again.
“Wait!” Grace stopped her and, frantic, asked, “What are you going to do?”
Stab that psycho in the face. “Look him in the face.”
“But that could kill you!”
“Listen to me. What if we’re wrong about everything? What if the devil is just some costumed asshole from a church? What if that door doesn’t go to heaven or hell, but to something completely different?” The room was much less crowded now: a pile of bodies at one end, black-robed play devils kneeling, and the two of them. The longhorn mask turned, met Jessie’s eyes. “Enough hiding. Enough of that life.”
Again, Grace caught her hand. “Wait.”
“Let me. I’ve got to do this.”
But Grace entwined her fingers with Jessie’s. “I know. Okay. Whatever you face, we’re facing it together.” She pulled Jessie in for their second kiss.
They stepped over all the bodies together to reach the glowing doorway, stopped a foot away from the devil, hand-in-hand. “All right then, you bastard,” Jessie said, looking up at him. “Judge me. I dare you.”
The devil took hold of the longhorn skull and lifted it away.
Copyright © 2022 by Josh Pearce