Cormac Matheson was in Ann Arbor for a Synod convention when his nephew came home and asked him to exorcise his apartment.
Cormac was staying with his wife’s sister. She lived in a nice, idyllic hometown, white fences, big green yards, spoiled Republican neighbors, everything the alimony from her divorced husband could afford her. Cormac’s wife joked that she was going to move in.
He’d been a pastor since he was 20, receiving the call while drunk in the Bahamas. He was lying in a hammock when suddenly he felt God smiling at him and decided to serve.
His nephew Troy had never really talked to him much. Cormac didn’t mind. He knew Troy didn’t care for him and Cormac didn’t care much for Troy either. Cormac could tolerate anyone, but loving the otherwise unlovable was God’s job.
Troy was an unabashed fuck-up, a double-chinned neckbeard man-child Millennial. 32 years old, he’d only moved out of his mother’s house the year before, to an apartment about half an hour away. Cormac imagined every surface in the place was covered with fast food grease, semen, or both.
As a child, Troy was quiet and awkward, and as an adolescent he was sullen and getting uglier and fatter by the day, always sucked into a screen of some kind from which explosions and screams could be heard. Now he was this bloat-monster of an excuse for a human being; slack-jawed, fish-mouthed and vacant-eyed. He didn’t seem to know his own mother, even. Cormac tried not to judge but with fuckwits like Troy around, he figured God would understand if he harbored some resentment.
Cormac hadn’t even expected to see Troy on this visit, figuring the lunk would choose to stay isolated in his semen-caked apartment. But on the first evening, Troy showed up in his old Grand Cherokee that no doubt smelled of rotting fruit and B.O.
He walked into the kitchen and stood there and waited for someone to say hi.
Cormac, his wife and his wife’s sister were seated at the kitchen table. Cormac was telling the girls about that day’s Synod, in which someone had brought up the band Megadeth due to a former guitarist’s conversion.
“Hey, Troy,” said Troy’s mother Gloria, the forced sunshine in her voice causing a great sorrow in Cormac’s heart. The sorrow was for Gloria, not Troy.
“I have to talk to Uncle Cormac,” said Troy. “Alone.”
Neither Cormac nor his wife got up and hugged Troy, who was dressed in a ratty hoodie and torn jeans and a t-shirt that looked like it hadn’t been washed since the Bush administration.
“What’s wrong, honey?”
“I have to talk to Uncle Cormac.”
“Are you having trouble with your pee-pee again and you’re more comfortable with a man looking at it?”
There was a terrible second where Cormac entertained the thought of what Gloria could be referring to, but fortunately Troy waved his mother’s request off, clearly embarrassed.
“No, Mom, Jesus,” he said. “Uncle Cormac, could you come out on the front porch for a second?”
“Sure, son,” said Cormac.
He slowly got up and followed Troy, leaving his cool glass of Pinot Grigio at the table. As he departed the kitchen, he heard his wife and Gloria whispering. His wife, Cheryl, asked something and Gloria whispered something about gonorrhea.
They got out to the porch. As soon as the door slammed Troy started talking and was so forthright and well-spoken that Cormac was taken aback. It was like the hulking dumbass of a nephew had turned into an astute citizen.
“I’m really sorry to bother you, Uncle Cormac,” he started. “I know we don’t talk much. But I have to ask. Do you do exorcisms?”
Cormac was taken even more aback.
“Uh, I haven’t before,” he said. “Why?”
“I think I might need one,” Troy said. “In my apartment.”
For the first time, Cormac saw that Troy was actually quite scared.
“Why do you think that?”
Troy explained. By the time he was done, Cormac was getting chills at the back of his neck, and they wouldn’t stop.
Troy was sweating himself and Cormac was surprised to feel sympathy for the big lug.
“I don’t hang out with anyone, Uncle Cormac,” said Troy. “I try not to bother people. But I was looking it up online and I don’t think I can do it alone. And then you were just coming here for the convention or whatever, and I was like… I don’t know, I’m not religious at all but I feel like that’s exactly the type of thing God would do. Put you here right at this time.”
Cormac was still getting chills. What Troy had just described was downright eerie and wrong. But Troy was also right. God did put him here, apparently for this. At the very least, he’d have to investigate it.
“I think you’re right,” said Cormac. “But I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you stay here for tonight, and we can go over there tomorrow. Do you work tomorrow?”
“No, I’m still unemployed.”
“Okay, well, we’ll go over to your apartment early tomorrow before I have to be at the Synod and… hopefully we can get this figured out. It might sound weird to hear this from me, but a lot of times these things have a rational explanation.”
He was telling this to himself as much as Troy.
“Yeah,” said Troy. “I haven’t slept in like, days, so that sounds good.”
The next morning Troy drives them to his apartment. Cormac didn’t sleep last night, unable to stop thinking about what Troy had said. He eventually gave up and read from the book of Mark and the book of Peter. It comforted him, and he feels God’s insanely powerful omnipresence reassuring him.
One verse stuck out — Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
The drive is quiet. Troy is a decent driver. The car is sloppy and unvacuumed but not the stinking garbage pit Cormac envisioned a day before.
They arrive at Troy’s apartment. The complex is called River’s Edge. There are no rivers nearby. It’s nondescript, all the buildings the same — three stories, wood paneling, lower-middle-class tier places, probably built in the eighties or nineties. It’s a cloudy, humid day, the entire sky looking as if it’s painted the muted off-white of waiting room wallpaper. Something feels heavy. Cormac prays to himself as he looks up to the third floor window where Troy has lived for the past year.
“Did you look up how to do this?” Troy asks as he parks at one of the buildings towards the back of the complex. He’s sweating again, looking up at what must be his window.
“I looked into it,” says Cormac.
In reality, Cormac had literally read the WikiHow page on how to exorcise a dwelling only the previous evening. Most exorcism information had to do with the exorcism of people, and Cormac had never received any formal training. But it seems prudent to not let Troy know that.
It’s nearly 7 AM.
“I’m on the third floor, door on the right,” says Troy, leading the way up the stairs.
The apartment is surprisingly clean and decently furnished. There’s a living room and kitchenette with a doorwall leading to a balcony. The kitchen is tiny, just a stove, a counter and a sink and fridge. The bedroom and bathroom are off a small alcove to Cormac’s right. There are bookshelves, a small couch, end tables.
Despite the apartment’s put-together appearance, there is a faint unpleasant odor in the air that smells like rotting food.
“That’s the smell,” says Troy. “I’ve been cleaning this place every day for a week now. It’s still there. Can you smell it?”
“I can,” says Cormac, and the prickles of chills on the back of his neck are starting again, spreading like fingers from the center of his spine and out. He can hear the fridge motor has something loose on it, rattling and squeaking quietly in its corner.
Something feels off, and it’s not just the cold from the air conditioning set to 50 degrees against the sweltering summer heat. It is the sense that one is being watched.
Cormac touches the crucifix he keeps around his neck, a brass Jesus stretched on a small brass cross, three inches long. The crucifix is hot. Cormac feels some subtle force pressing on him.
Get out, he hears a quiet voice say.
“Can you feel it?” Troy asks.
Cormac nods. He asks God for strength. He knows he’s supposed to be here right now. He is God’s instrument in this small, apartment-sized battle.
“Do you have any crosses or religious iconography?” he asks his nephew, his hand on his unsettlingly warm crucifix.
“No,” says Troy. “I’m an atheist.”
“Not anymore, apparently.”
Troy smiles a little. Cormac is beginning to like him, despite his slovenly appearance.
“You need to get some,” he tells him. “It’ll help.”
He takes a step into the living room and does the sign of the cross and right away he feels the air change. It gets… thicker. Something is weighing on him.
The vague smell of rot gets a little stronger. The fridge buzzing gets a little louder.
Get out, he hears again.
“Did you hear that?” Troy asks.
“Yeah,” said Cormac. He’s looking around the room. His feet are planted firmly. He’s staking his position. He’s never done this before, but with God on your side, there is no fear.
“There’s something in here,” says Troy. “It’s been in here for a couple weeks now. I feel it.”
“I know,” says Cormac.
He takes another step in and the smell gets stronger, the fridge another degree louder. It’s like he’s swimming underwater. The pressure around him increases.
No, not pressure.
Pushing. He’s being pushed out of the apartment.
“Uncle Cormac,” says Troy. “I think I need to — ”
He doubles over and starts retching. He rolls over on his back, arms flailing, his hairy gut sloshing under his hitched-up t-shirt. His eyes are rolled back, his veins popping.
“Get out, get out,” he says in a choked voice, writhing. “Get out. Get out.”
Cormac begins talking. He doesn’t know what he’s saying, but he’s reciting Bible verses that demonstrate God’s power and wrath and his dominance over all living things, all realms, unquestioned by any snotty presence that thinks it can terrify a mortal. God is All.
Get out, yells the disembodied voice.
Get out, yells Troy.
“You’re trespassing in this home and on this plain,” Cormac says in a loud voice. “Begone. In the name of Jesus, in the name of the Holy Spirit, begone.”
“GET OUT,” says Troy through a scratched throat. “GET OUT, CHRISTFUCKER.”
“Begone, Devil. The kingdom of God has come upon you.”
“Begone, Devil. You have no power here.”
The disembodied voice is now chanting GET OUT over and over, and Cormac realizes there is more than one, a hellion chorus. Troy seizes on the carpet, black ooze bubbling from between his lips and from his eyes.
Cormac has barely ever thought about the verses he’s reciting. He feels himself bolstered by some inner light, some undying strength.
He walks around the living room, touching every corner with his crucifix which is now as hot as a car hood in June, and he can feel the pressure fighting him, resisting. He can feel strong hands pushing against his shoulders, forcing him towards the door. But he puts one foot in front of the other, stepping into the force like a strong wind. He recites the Our Father in his head.
Troy is screaming on the floor, thrashing and thumping around. The smell of rot is unbearable now. The fridge motor is buzzing like a wasp’s nest.
“Begone,” Cormac commands. The crucifix is burning his fingers. “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You have no power here. Be silent, and come out. Begone.”
He is not afraid. With God on your side, there is never any reason to be afraid.
“GET OUT,” shrieks Troy.
GET OUT, chants the disembodied voices.
“Begone, unclean one, and never come back.”
Troy seizes, slamming himself into the wall, into the door. There’s blood everywhere, he’s smashed his nose in, smashed his lips.
For a moment, Cormac worries he’ll be overcome.
But then, the entire apartment seems to take a huge breath, one last tremendous push of resistence, and then… nothing.
The smell is gone. The pressure is gone. The crucifix is no warmer than the skin of Cormac’s chest. Even the fridge isn’t buzzing.
Cormac kneels next to his nephew.
“Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you,” he says to the lump at his knees.
Troy’s eyes open. They are their normal blue-grey. His ruined face leaking blood and the black bile.
“Did it work?” he asks, his voice normal. He feels his nose and winces.
“I think so,” says Cormac. “Here. You’ll need this.”
He takes his crucifix off and puts it in Troy’s hand.
“God doesn’t do favors,” he says. “But He loves everyone and wants the best for us. So hang onto this and don’t be afraid to talk to Him or ask for anything.”
“Thanks,” says Troy. He swallows, brings his t-shirt up to wipe his face. “Thanks so much, Uncle Cormac.”
Cormac smiles at him as Troy cleans himself with his shirt. He’s starting to like the kid. Maybe he’s been wrong about Troy this whole time.
Then Troy ruins it.
“Do I have to go to church now?” he asks, looking at the crucifix in his hand. “Or can I just wear this and that’ll be enough to keep these demons away?”
“Up to you,” he says.