Isabel said, “I think I’m being possessed.”
You said, “You’re not being possessed.” You also said, “Don’t be so dramatic,” which you would later look back on and regret.
Isabel said, “One of my ankles is twice the size of the other one.”
You agreed on the generalities. The ankle did look swollen.
You disagreed on the specifics. Not twice the size, just swollen. Sort of puffy. The skin looked like it would be too hard and too soft, all at once. You reached out to feel it, the way you’d learned in your Red Cross First Aid and Wilderness First Responders class. Isabel jerked the ankle away. She wouldn’t let you near it, not even to make sure it wasn’t broken.
Isabel said, “It’s eating me alive, starting with my ankle.”
“You have a sprained ankle. Stop pacing and come lie back down on the couch.”
“I can’t believe you’re asking me to face my imminent death and consumption by a bodiless unknown horror lying down.”
You said, “I’m just asking you to sit down so you don’t make it worse.”
But Isabel didn’t sit down. Isabel rarely sat down. It was one of the things that you liked best about her. All your friends wanted was to stay at home with someone, to sit on the couch and watch Netflix, and to text back We got a new pasta cookbook!!! when you asked about their weekend. You should come over, we’ll make you cavatappi!!! Somehow, you had blinked once, in your mid-twenties, and when you opened your eyes, you were almost thirty and you were friends with people who used three exclamation points at once and had opinions about cavatappi. Your opinion about cavatappi was that it was disconcerting. It looked like elbow macaroni that had gotten carried away. You liked their messages, went over for cavatappi, and pretended that you weren’t trying to crawl out of your own skin the whole time. You did a medium job.
You wanted to move. Isabel loved to move. She loved to dance. She loved to hike. She was a bad dancer and a good hiker. She hadn’t asked for your feedback in those areas, though, so you didn’t offer it. She paced when she was irritated or excited or on the phone. If they could figure out how to hook up Isabel to a power generator, she would have lit your whole crappy town up like a magnesium flare.
Right now you would have paid anyone in the world twelve hundred and thirty-three dollars, which was all the money in your bank account, for Isabel to stop moving long enough to RICE.
You said, “RICE. Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Thing one is rest.”
She said, “It feels like something is burning me from the inside out.” A lot of things burned Isabel from the inside out. She was born burning and they hadn’t invented the thing that would extinguish her yet. A sprained ankle was definitely not going to do the trick.
The ankle was definitely sprained, to be clear. You two were hiking Cadillac Mountain. You had seen her miss her step. You saw her foot go into the hole. You saw it turn almost all the way around, a direction an ankle isn’t supposed to go.
Of course, two things can be true.
Two weeks later, Isabel was still burning from the inside out. She was talking to her college friends on the phone. They talked every weekend, all four of them. She put headphones in and paced around the apartment while she talked. The apartment wasn’t very big, so she had to get creative. You lifted up your legs when she paced by so that she could pace between you and the coffee table. You were playing Mass Effect. You had a plan to make Isabel realize that there were fun things you could do together from a sitting position, with her ankle elevated. Preferably with an ice pack on it. Playing a lot of Mass Effect was a key part of that plan. It was going medium.
Isabel paced. She did a good job of pretending not to limp.
The college friends were talking about pain. All of them were in pain, of one kind or another. Chronic pain, breakup pain. One of them had done something to her hip playing roller derby. She was going to a PT now, and she was excited about it.
Isabel said, “Does it help?”
The friend said, “You have to keep doing it.”
Isabel said, “For how long?”
The friend said, “For the rest of my life.”
Isabel said, “Fuck that!”
She believed you should stop doing things before they weren’t fun anymore so that you only had the good memories. She had a sixth sense for when that would be. People were always texting things like, Oh man, the party got so boring after you left. You tried not to think about what, if anything, that sixth sense meant in re: you. It was one of the reasons that you hadn’t pushed too hard when Isabel wouldn’t listen to you and RICE. You couldn’t imagine Isabel deciding to do something for the rest of her life.
Now Isabel was telling the college friends about her ankle. She had, finally, conceded to an ACE bandage. You were running out of ibuprofen. One down. RI-E to go.
Isabel said, “Beck doesn’t believe me.” She turned the phone around so that the camera faced you, so you could wave.
The college friends said, “Hi, Rebecca!!!” They were multiple-exclamation-point people, too.
You said, “I believe it hurts.” You liked the college friends. They understood about loving someone who was always on fire. They respected you because they could love Isabel from hundreds of miles away, and you had to be near her all the time.
Isabel said, “It doesn’t even really hurt anymore.”
Before you could say something stupid like, Well that’s good or Why are you still limping, then? she said, “It has passed into an eldritch dimension beyond pain.”
“Sorry about your haunted ankle,” the college friends said.
When she hung up the phone, you said, “That’s it, we’re going to the Med Center.”
Isabel said, “I don’t have health insurance.”
You said, “I will pay.”
Isabel said, “You don’t have health insurance.” You had sixteen hundred and fifty-seven dollars in your bank account.
You said, “You should have thought of that before you said the words eldritch dimension beyond pain.”
The Pen Bay Med Center was mostly beige. Mostly beige and mostly empty. Isabel wanted you to wait in the car, but you didn’t trust her not to walk right out the back of the Med Center and into Penobscot Bay itself and swim for home. Isabel did not prefer doctors. You did promise to walk across the street to Dunkin’ Donuts and buy her munchkins, once she’d been safely remanded to the care of a nurse.
Even though it was mostly empty, it took a long time. You waited for almost an hour in the waiting room. Then you waited in a triage room. Someone came and took Isabel’s blood pressure. They measured her heartbeat and her breathing.
They asked her, “Is there any chance you might be pregnant?” You and Isabel looked at each other. You and Isabel looked at the nurse.
Isabel said, “If I’m pregnant, then I will be writing a strongly worded letter to God.” They made her take a pregnancy test anyway.
The nurse said, “Your temperature is elevated.”
Isabel said, “I run hot.” She wanted to pace. The room was small, though, and there was nowhere to go.
The doctor came and asked a lot of questions. He wanted Isabel to rate her pain on a scale of one to ten. If ten is the worst pain you can imagine.
Isabel said, “Fifteen.” The doctor looked at her like she was bullshitting him. She shrugged. Isabel didn’t spend a lot of her life imagining pain.
The doctor wanted to give her an MRI.
He said, “We don’t usually do walk-ins, but you’re lucky. Someone else had to reschedule. We can take you down there right now.” Isabel made a face. She didn’t think she was lucky at all.
The MRI said that nothing was wrong.
Isabel said, “That’s not possible.” The doctor shrugged. He might not have been a very good doctor.
Isabel said, “I feel what I feel.”
You said, “I saw her ankle go all the way around.” You thought: I saw her limping. Isabel was dramatic, but she wasn’t a liar.
The doctor said, “I’m sorry, but that’s what it says.”
Isabel said, “I hope this is everything you dreamed your life would be in med school.”
The doctor said, “It isn’t.” He left.
The MRI tech had sort of been standing in the background this whole time. Now he said, “Do you want my advice?”
Isabel said, “Is it good advice?” The MRI tech shrugged.
He said, “I wouldn’t call a plumber if my car was broken. Just sayin’.” He gave Isabel a business card and left. The two of you were alone. Isabel was in the gown they made her put on for the MRI. She looked cold. That was the problem with running hot. She gave off all her heat and didn’t keep any behind for herself. You helped her find her sweater and her jeans. They’d fallen behind a chair. You helped her put her jewelry back in. The two of you looked at the business card.
The warlock’s office was just behind JJ’s Snack Shack, on Rte. 1. You had driven by the Snack Shack every day for eight years. Hand-painted signs out front said Fresh blueberries, even though it was November, and Camp Wood $4.00, even though there wasn’t, and Ice Cream, with a little banana split sundae painted on the top. Somehow you had never noticed the sign that said Eldritch Counseling.
When you left the Med Center, business card for a local warlock propped on the dash, Isabel said, “Told you so.” She didn’t say anything else for the rest of the ride.
You didn’t say, “This is ridiculous.” You thought it, though.
The warlock’s office had a lot of natural light. It had wide wood floors. It had instruments that you were pretty sure were actually for meteorology and surveying, and an astrolabe, and a lot of crystals, and some books that you hoped weren’t bound in human skin. It had a wall hanging of a mandala and a poster with all the chakras on it. If you could ignore the two-headed calf floating in a jar and the distillation flasks that might have been full of human blood, it looked like any white hippie’s home office.
The warlock came in. They looked familiar. It was a small town. They were wearing a canvas jacket. You were wearing the same one, only yours was brown. At least theirs was black. Besides the black, they didn’t look much like a warlock. They looked like they might have done reiki, or maybe ceramics.
Isabel said, “I don’t have health insurance.”
The warlock said, “That’s okay. No charge.”
Isabel said, “Are you going to ask for my firstborn instead?” Isabel’s firstborn was Dumptruck, her cat. Dumptruck was four years old and had never learned to meow properly. He hated you. You hoped that the warlock asked for Dumptruck.
The warlock said, “No. This is more of a hobby. I just like to keep a hand in.” The warlock had Isabel sit on a massage table. They ran crystals over her body, focusing on her legs. They held her ankle close to the anemometer. It spun. They made a note of the direction. They had her hold two copper dowsing rods, which also spun. They made notes. The warlock consulted the tomes and looked at Isabel’s ankle. In the corner, the distilling blood went plaarp.
The warlock said, “This will hurt.” Then they stuck their fingers right into Isabel’s ankle. Right through the skin. Right through the bone. You could see their fingers moving under the skin. You nearly went plaarp. Isabel looked interested.
The warlock said, “Got it!” They pulled. Out came something that looked like a noodle or a tapeworm, all twisted up on itself like a corkscrew. You thought: that’s a piece of cavatappi. Only it wasn’t, obviously. It had come out of Isabel’s ankle, and it shouldn’t have been in there. The MRI had declined to notice it.
They put the cavatappi in a tupperware and handed it to Isabel. She held it like she didn’t know what to do with it.
The warlock said, “We call it a spirochete.”
You said, “That’s a kind of bacteria.” You had taken a medium number of science classes, once upon a time.
The warlock said, “It is also a kind of bacteria.”
Isabel said, “What is it?” She was looking at it like she couldn’t believe it had come from inside her. She had looked at her wisdom teeth the same way when she'd had them removed. Isabel thought she had burned away all the wet inside parts. The dentist let her keep the wisdom teeth. You hoped the warlock wouldn’t let her keep the spirochete.
You also could not believe it had come from inside Isabel, a person who was mostly filled with flames. A medium number of science classes had not prepared you for this. The warlock said, “It was a host.”
You said, “Now what is it?”
The warlock said, “Dead. I’m sorry. I wish you’d come to see me earlier.”
The dead cavatappi noodle in the tupperware used to have a demon in it. Now Isabel had a demon inside her. It was eating her alive. It was starting with her ankle.
Isabel said, “Told you so.” She had.
You said, “So, what, do you exorcise it?”
The warlock said, “You watch too many movies.” Which was a lot, from a literal warlock.
What you were supposed to do with the demon eating your girlfriend alive, starting with her ankle was: nothing. There was nothing to do.
“What we have here,” the warlock said, “is a classic ship-of-Theseus-type possession.”
Isabel said, “Aw, nuts. Why couldn’t I get the Zeno’s-paradox possession?”
You said, “Hey, at least it wasn’t the trolley-problem possession.”
The warlock said, “These are not new jokes.” You suddenly understood what people meant by sepulchral tones.
The warlock said, “I’m only trying to be helpful.” They sounded a little hurt.
The demon was eating Isabel alive. The demon was taking the parts of her that it ate and replacing them with bits of its own demon self. Right now, Isabel was still mostly Isabel. Only her ankle and maybe part of her leg and maybe some other stuff were demon. But eventually, it would all be demon.
The warlock said, “If it’s any consolation, you probably won’t even notice when it happens.” The demon would look the same as Isabel. It would think the same. It would also love to dance.
You said, “Give me some credit.” Isabel looked at you. Your credit rating was pretty low, at the moment.
The warlock said, “Not you. Although—also you, probably.”
Isabel said, “Why would that be a consolation.”
“Well,” the warlock said, “Now that the old host is gone, there won’t be any pain. Some people find that pretty consoling. And you won’t be hurting anyone you love. None of that your mother sucks cocks in hell stuff. Trust me. As far as possessions go, you could do a lot worse.”
You asked, “Is there anything we can do, to slow it down?” It was not clear if the we had done anything to improve your credit rating.
The warlock said, “Take it easy. Rest. Don’t burn yourself out.” If she was careful, she might last the whole of her life. Otherwise, without the host’s body inside her, making its way up her leg, no way to know for sure.
Isabel said, “Then put it back.”
You said, “Eldritch dimension beyond pain.”
The warlock said, “That’s not how it works. You’re the host now.”
Isabel started to cry. She had made it twenty-eight years without hosting anything, and she was spoiling her good record. You didn’t even know she could cry. All the tears should have been burned right out of her by now, but here she was, crying into your shoulder.
“Hey,” you said, “Hey, it’s okay. This doesn’t mean that we have to become Pasta People.” She looked at you. Her eyes were puffy.
“I would rather burn out,” she said. Which is just the sort of thing someone who’s always on fire would say.
Demon possession was not a good reason to call out of work. Especially when your truck needed new snow tires. You went to work. When you came back to the apartment, Isabel was gone. You were glad she left while you weren’t there. You wouldn’t have been able to stop her. No one had ever stopped Isabel from doing something that she wanted. You played Mass Effect. Your friends texted. Going to hear Dean’s band play!!! Come join!! The pasta friends had recently discovered dad rock and garage bands. You liked the text. For the first time in your life, you didn’t want to move.
Dumptruck came out of the empty guest bedroom. Probably good that Isabel left him behind, you thought. Demons probably ate cats. Even demons that looked like Isabel and loved to hike. If you were a hiking kind of demon, though, maybe you preferred wildlife. Deer and such. Were demons allowed to hunt out of season, you wondered.
You said, to Dumptruck, “I wish the demon had eaten you instead.”
Dumptruck said, mrop.
“Hey,” Isabel said. She had gone out to get pizza. “None of that or I’ll leave for real.” She had thought about it. But she came back. You tried not to think about how much Isabel she’d burned out, while she was gone.
She’d gotten mushrooms on the whole pizza, though, so your credit was not fully restored.
Together, you do math. You make a budget. If the demon ate through this much leg in two weeks under normal Isabel parameters, then how much is one hike? One night shutting down the bar? One day of being the truck friend, helping the pasta friends move into a house with room for a baby?
Thank you!!! the pasta friends write. Baby shower on the 27th, eek!!!! You like the text. You and Isabel are teaching yourselves Scrabble. You’re doing a medium job. She likes blocking you, you like getting the triple word scores, but neither of you likes doing the math.
You do it anyway. Yes to a day hike, no to the 100-mile wilderness. Yes to the baby shower (and to the baby’s first birthday, a little over a year later). No to a birthday present for a one-year-old, on principle. No to a birthday present until they remember your names without prompting and can say them without lisping. Yes to a desk job for Isabel. No to a work trip. No to work-related happy hours. Yes to the endless argument about what to watch next on Netflix, no to pasta!!!
Your friends joke that you’ve been domesticated. You like the text. You hope that you and Isabel are doing the same math. Some nights she goes out on her own. You don’t ask. Some days she comes home late from work. You don’t ask. Some metals burn in contact with air. If you don’t want them to burn, you don’t give them air.
It becomes kind of a joke. Isabel’s demon. Demons don’t have a sense of humor, probably. If Isabel is joking, that’s a good sign.
You say, “Where do you want to order takeout from tonight?”
Isabel says, “I want har gow, but ze demon Spirochete, ‘e craves ze gordita.”
You say, “Why is the demon Spirochete French?”
Isabel says, “All demons are French.”
You say, “Well, your choices are pizza or slightly worse pizza.” You get the slightly worse pizza, for variety.
Yes to a weekend trip to New York. You stuff yourselves on har gow and char siu bao and hand-pulled noodles. You go to the Met and the Guggenheim, Prospect Park and Coney Island. You go out dancing. You’re definitely and actively not thinking about your bank account. You sit through an awkward, polite dinner with Isabel’s parents. Isabel translates. Her parents carefully don’t ask why they’ve never met you before. They say, maybe we’ll come up and see you in the spring.
Isabel says, “Yeah, maybe.” You walk a lot. Isabel glows from inside, an incandescent flame.
On the drive back up, Isabel sleeps in the passenger seat. Her head is on the window, her bare feet on the dash. She is using your jacket for a blanket. Cars have always been one of the places where she is easily and simply at rest. She wakes up at the Kittery rest stop, asks if you want her to take a turn.
You say, “Nah.” You like driving. You always have.
Isabel says, “That was a nice trip.” It was a nice trip. Even the part with parents in it. You don’t have the other half of the conversation, the part where one of you says, we should do that again soon.
You say, “Is ze demon Spirochete sated?”
Isabel says, “Oui, oui très bien.” She pronounces it bean. She looks out into the trees. She says, “That’s gotta be the whole left leg by now.” You reach across in the dark cab and take her hand.
“Hey,” you say, “worth it.”
You get home after midnight. Dumptruck is sulking. You text your friends. Back safe! Great trip! You have begrudgingly made room in your heart for one exclamation point. You doubt anyone is still awake, but you promised to text them the second you get back!!! You keep your promises. Across town, Pasta Dad is awake with the baby. He likes the text.
You settle back in. You go back to math. Yes to skiing, no to drinks afterward. Yes to dinner with the college friends, who are in Portland for a wedding. Yes to inviting them up to see the apartment. Yes to hosting a brunch. Isabel isn’t even mad that hosting means doing dishes. You do all the cooking. You do a medium job.
Isabel finally vetoes Scrabble, but gives an enthusiastic yes to video games. She likes Diablo. She never plays a Demon Hunter. Sniping from the back isn’t her style.
Her parents seem like they really might make good on their threat to visit. A panicked, last-minute yes to a mattress for the guest bedroom. You ask Pasta Dad to help you move it into the house. You tell him, Isabel isn’t feeling well. Isabel hears you say that. Your credit rating dips.
Dumptruck is furious at being exiled from his kingdom. He says, mrop.
Sometimes, when you wake up before her, you watch Isabel sleep. She looks the same as the day you met. Maybe she looks a little more tired. Well, you’re older now. Well, the warlock said you wouldn’t know. You see the warlock sometimes, in the street, and pretend you don’t. The warlock is used to this. You touch Isabel’s bare back. She still runs hot. She’s still burning from the inside, an incandescent flame. Sometimes when she wakes up, you’ll ask, Still Isabel, and she says something like, Mais non, je suis le Demon. Her French accent has gotten worse and worse.
Isabel feels your hand and rolls over. In the early morning sunlight off the bay, your hair all messed up from sleeping, you look like you could be on fire.
You ask, “Still Isabel?”
I say, “Yes.”