All True Believers
“I rebuke you in the name of Jesus. I rebuke you in the name of Jesus,” Zelsie incanted as she lay in bed. She’d fallen asleep that night the same way she did every night — lying on her back with one hand down her pants while the other clutched her favorite stuffed animal. Zelsie didn’t fall asleep this way for the reason you might expect — she wouldn’t explore that sort of play until many years later, shortly after stumbling upon a box of romance novels her aunt kept hidden in the attic. No, Zelsie fell asleep this way because it’s the only way she could fall asleep without feeling like a corpse. She’d been to a few funerals, and she’d never seen someone buried with their hand shoved down their pants.
Just as Zelsie had been falling asleep the same way every night for years, she’d been waking up the same way every night for years: terrified, and with the distinct feeling that she was being watched. Sometimes, Zelsie could even see the outline of a hooded figure sitting at the end of her bed. These episodes left Zelsie with an aching chest and sweat-soaked pajamas, but she always managed to fall asleep again long before dawn. Her nights had played out this way for as long as Zelsie could remember, cloaking even holiday evenings in dread, and that dread had only grown since last Sunday.
Like she did most Sundays, Zelsie sat in a pew near the back with a friend while her aunt sat at the piano. Zelsie usually paid more attention to the comic strips her friend drew on the tithing envelopes than to the preacher himself, but last Sunday’s sermon grabbed Zelsie’s attention and held on tight. “All true believers will be tested with a demonic visitation,” the preacher said, prying Zelsie’s eyes from her friend’s comic strip for the first time that morning.
All week, Zelsie wondered if the figure who sometimes sat at the end of her bed was actually a demon, and if he’d come back that night. She thought about him on Monday during her spelling test and ended up misspelling the word “anguish.” At recess the next day, she lost a race to a boy she’d always been able to outrun. The day after that, she burst into tears at the dinner table when she couldn’t stop picturing the figure’s hooded form. She thought of him throughout ballet class on Thursday and kept pliéing out of sync with the other dancers. When Friday finally came, she couldn’t even finish her lunch.
Zelsie thought about the figure every single morning while she was feeding her cat, Pepper, and she thought about him every single night as well, especially when she’d awake — as if to the snap of invisible fingers — frozen with fear. She thought of him more often than not, and she told no one — as if describing his previous visits might summon him.
Tonight was Saturday night, and he was back. When Zelsie awoke in the middle of the night, she didn’t just feel a presence — she spotted one at the foot of her bed. It’s why she’d been repeatedly whispering the phrase she’d learned at church — the one that was meant to banish evil spirits — but no matter how many times she repeated it, he just sat there. He didn’t make a sound. He didn’t turn to look at Zelsie; he didn’t try to touch her face or grab her feet. He didn’t move at all. When Zelsie’s heartbeat slowed and her breaths evened out, she stopped incanting. Still, he didn’t move. I’ll close my eyes for just a second, she thought. When she opened them, it was morning.
That Sunday’s comic strip featured a Harvard-educated opossum, and Zelsie re-read it twice before church ended. Zelsie and her aunt had a lunch of macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, fried okra, cornbread, and green beans, and Zelsie ate two helpings of everything. She even had room for banana pudding. Afterwards, she read two chapters of Charlotte’s Web before taking a walk in the woods with Pepper. Zelsie’s aunt drew her a bubble bath that evening, and the two of them watched The Wizard of Oz when Zelsie was finished. Zelsie thought about the figure less than she had in days, and when she did think of him, she thought only of how he didn’t respond to the phrase she’d learned at church. If it didn’t banish him, maybe he isn’t evil?
He didn’t visit Zelsie that night or for several nights after, and while she still thought of him sometimes, those thoughts didn’t keep her from acing her quizzes. They didn’t mess with her timing during dance class or keep her from finishing her meals, either. The longer he stayed away, the more Zelsie hoped he would visit her again.
When he did, she tried talking to the figure. After her heartbeat calmed and her breathing eased, she asked him his name. She asked him if he was her guardian angel. She asked him why he was cloaked in black if he was her guardian angel. She asked him why he never lowered his hood, and how he’d gotten into her room. She asked him if he could fly. But the figure simply sat at the foot of Zelsie’s bed. When he visited her a few nights later, Zelsie skipped the questions altogether. “Thank you for watching over me,” she whispered when she could speak. A few nights after that, she told him a funny story about Pepper; and a few nights later, she told him a funny story about her aunt.
Within a month, Zelsie would simply acknowledge his presence the way she would a dog’s or a cat’s. She’d reach into the darkness hoping to feel his cloak — then, with one arm outstretched while the other cradled her favorite stuffed animal, she’d go back to sleep.
Liz Enochs is a writer from southeast Missouri — more often than not, you’ll find her in the woods. website: https://www.elizabethenochs.com/.