The devil lurks at the riverfront, down by the dam where a small island splits the river. Everyone knows this. He can take whatever form he chooses but most often appears as an aged man, nearly skeletal, in worn jeans and a tattered red flannel barn coat, a weathered Cubs hat, puffed up at the top as if to conceal something. His rubber boots are loose upon his calves, sometimes turning to the sides, or even backwards. His skin is gray as the water on an overcast day: eyes dark, set deep under a sharp brow, salt-and-pepper beard long and scruffy. In his thin, dry lips, there is always a burning cigarette. The sleeve of his right arm dangles loose beneath the elbow, and in his sinister hand he holds an open beer can. It is always the same can, and it is never empty. He reeks of yeast, alcohol, and peat moss, and a halo of pale river moths flit around his head. His voice—raspy, cancerous—is so faint you have to lean in to hear it. But this is ill-advised. The devil is silver-tongued, even in whispers.
He is responsible for great woe.
In the seventies, Montgomery Cobb, the owner of the steel mill, went to eat lunch by the riverfront and, after a ten-minute talk, he signed papers that moved most of the mill’s operations and all of the jobs that went with it to Singapore. Now the plant is nothing but a rusted-out, graffiti-ridden husk inhabited by rats and homeless people. A third of the town is on welfare.
They say he caused the flood of ’93, when the river rose into people’s yards and homes, leaving moldy carpet and ruined drywall in its wake. The rotted carcasses of houses remain, pieces falling off and drifting into the Mississippi.
There is no family in this small town he hasn’t touched.
The kids seem drawn to him, and his voice is always in their ears. Many a teenage girl made her way down to under the bridge, only to end up with a bulging belly and shame on her family. The Jelineks lost their youngest son when he drank of the devil’s cup and drove into a culvert.
In ‘06, a sixteen-year-old cheerleader named Carrie Manders washed up bloated and pregnant on the riverbank. Her father Joe formed a posse, and they marched to the riverfront with justice in their hearts. They used bats and two-by-fours, brass knuckles, pipes. When they were done, they tossed the devil off the bridge, into the foamy current. And that, they thought, was the end of it.
But it’s never that easy.
Joe changed. Drifted away. His wife said it was like he wasn’t even there. The next day, he disappeared for good.
On his morning jog, Reverend Gillis saw the familiar circle of river moths again. The devil, bruised and waterlogged, pushed his cigarette to one side of his mouth, tipped his hat, and said, “Mornin’ Reverend.”
There was a meeting that night in the park, in the old band shell that hadn’t been used in a decade. The fight against the devil, said the Reverend, was a long game.
At the end of a cul de sac carved out of a cornfield, a girl wakes, stares at a popcorn ceiling while she eavesdrops on her parents arguing downstairs: Mom is saying something about it not being time, she isn’t ready, what if she doesn’t come back.
Father, as usual, is unfazed. “It’s got to be this way,” he says.
Today is special—the girl is supposed to do something soon, and this is the last test to make sure she’s ready. She was selected out of all the other girls, which is why she has to be homeschooled and isn’t allowed to watch anything on TV except Faith Warrior, a cartoon where the heroine, Faith, destroys unbelievers with purity rays from her eyes while quoting Bible verses.
The girl takes a deep breath and gets up.
She is thirteen, tall for her age, pale and slightly freckled, body long and sinewy like a runner, red hair in tight braids that drape down to the middle of her back. Her eyes are green with tiny flecks of orange fire—holy fire, Reverend Gillis says—and wide, as if taking in the world all at once.
She pads barefoot into the hallway. Her brother’s door is open, just a crack. Caleb and his friend Brody, who stayed over again last night, are playing video games in their boxers.
The girl allows herself a glimpse of Brody, cross-legged on the floor in pajama shorts and a tank that exposes his chest and shoulders. He’s slender but soft, and his ears stick out a little too much, but she can’t stop looking at him, at his bare shoulders or his smile, as he does something to Caleb’s character and guffaws.
She forces herself to look away. Caleb is supposed to keep his door closed, especially when Brody is over.
“Have some breakfast and get ready to go,” Father says.
An hour later, Father pulls the white SUV into the parking lot of the Rockdale Church of God, pointy spires and stained glass growing out of a soybean field. The girl’s dress, a yellow floral pattern with a hem down to her ankles, is warm. Father insisted she look her best, though it’s muggy and the stockings make the back of her knees sweat. He leads her in and toward the Reverend’s office in the back, where the woodworked walls and new carpet give way to speckled linoleum and yellow plaster.
“Welcome,” Reverend Gillis says, his eyes on the girl. “Are we ready?”
“Yes,” Father says.
The Reverend asks his usual questions: any impure thoughts? Temptations? Is her mind holy and clear? She answers: no, Reverend; no, Reverend; yes, Reverend.
“You haven’t bled yet?”
“No.” The idea horrifies her.
“Haven’t been sticking your fingers up there or anything? No rubbing?”
“No.” Sure, she’s scratched outside her underwear once or twice. But she knows that’s not what he means.
“Good,” he says. “You’re ready to drive the devil out.”
“Amen,” the girl’s father says, his eyes misty with pride.
Reverend Gillis grabs his worn Bible, gives the girl a tight smile and a nod. “Let us pray.”
The next morning, a white SUV pulls up to the park entrance, and the girl steps out. She leans into each of the open windows, gives each of her parents a quick hug. Her mother holds on a little longer.
The girl waves goodbye as she walks away. Her brother opens the door to follow, but her father holds him back.
“We’ll meet you at the end of the bridge,” her father says. “We’ll go to Dairy Queen. Get you a nice Blizzard.”
The girl’s mother lowers her head and whispers: We don’t have to do this. The girl does not know what to make of this, but Father has spoken, and his word is final.
The SUV pulls away, stops in an empty Jiffy Lube parking lot across the river, and sits idling.
The girl descends the grassy hill into the park. The ash leaves rustle in the breeze. Foamy waves cascade over the dam. She walks on to the end of the little island, where there are only rocks and rushing water.
She sees the top of a blue baseball cap, a halo of moths, a thin smoke trail rising into the air. A twig snaps under her foot, and suddenly black eyes, deep set behind a wrinkled brow, stare back at her. Her breath quickens.
“Hello, young lady,” a cracked voice says. “You lost?”
“No,” she says. “I’m supposed to be here.”
“I see,” he says. “Somebody waitin’ on you?”
“My parents. We’re going out for ice cream after this.”
“That so?” He takes a long drag on his cigarette.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” the girl says. She’s seen pictures of blackened lungs and knows the evils, though Father’s cigars do not count.
“Thanks for the warning,” the man says, and tosses the cigarette in the river. “Never too late to quit.” He squints at her. “Come down where I can see you.”
The girl shrugs, steps sideways down the rocky incline, until she is face to face with him. He is small, fragile, thin as a grapevine. When the breeze blows, she smells stale beer.
“What’s your name, little Miss?”
“Don’t you already know?” Reverend Gillis says the devil knows everything.
“Just makin’ conversation.”
She thinks she ought not to share, but she’s here, so she tells him anyway. “Rachel Knobquist. With a K. What’s yours?”
The old man smiles back. “Don’t you already know?”
“Not really.” This was not something she’d ever thought to ask.
The one-armed man snorts. “Been so long since anybody used it, I don’t remember.” He looks tired, like he hasn’t slept in a hundred years.
The girl stares. Since she doesn’t know what else to say, she just blurts it out. “I’m supposed to ask you to go away. Nobody wants you here.” This is rude and unladylike, the opposite of what she’s been taught all her life, but Reverend Gillis told her the devil doesn’t deserve courtesy.
“Okay, Rachel,” the devil says with a smile. “Ask away.”
She sighs. “Can you please leave? You cause problems.”
“Where exactly you want me to go?”
Rachel shrugs. “Anywhere else.”
The old man nods, as if deep in thought. “Well, say I don’t want to. Then what?”
“I’m supposed to destroy you.”
“And how you gonna do that?”
Reverend Gillis said the old man would try to tempt her, that she was supposed to resist, that it would be enough to make him go away. But maybe she’s supposed to open her eyes wide and unleash purity rays, like in Faith Warrior.
“Gotcha.” He takes a swig of the beer, steadies himself against a large mossy rock. His knees crackle like popcorn as he sits. “Well, if you plan to do me in, best get to it.”
“That won’t work,” Rachel says. “They said you’d act sick and weak.”
The old man sighs. “Sweetie, I’m old and tired, and I only got one arm. If you’re here to finish me off, you won’t have much trouble.”
The sight of him makes her queasy. She wishes she had purity rays, because then she wouldn’t have to go near him.
“Come sit,” the old man says, and points to a rock a few feet from him.
“I don’t think I should.”
“If you’re about to do away with this old body, I at least want somebody to talk to first. So if you don’t trust me, pick up that big rock, and if I do anything you don’t like, you bash my brains in. Sound fair?”
“Okay,” she says, and picks up a big, jagged rock from the bank. It’s heavy, covered with moss, and smells like fish flies. She sits.
The old man holds the beer out to her. “Have a swig?”
“Also gross. And it gives you cancer.”
The old man laughs. “Well, that’s about all I got to offer, darlin’.” He looks up at the bridge, the white SUV in the little lot, the boy staring at them out the window. The old man waves. “Those your people?”
“What do they think of all this?”
“Father’s all for it. My mother…I’m never sure what she thinks.”
“So what’d they do, send you to a training camp?”
The girl shakes her head. “I had private schooling with the Reverend.”
“Sounds lonely,” the old man says.
“I have a brother,” she says. “He’s nice to me. Mostly.”
“How did you know that?” Rachel shifts slightly on the rock, in case she needs to get up in a hurry.
“Never you mind. So your folks let him go out and do stuff?”
“That don’t sound fair. Girl your age should be out adventurin’, gettin’ into trouble.”
Rachel shrugs. “Maybe once this is over.”
“I’m not dumb,” she says. “I know what you’re doing.”
The old man takes a long drag, blows it out in little rings that dissolve over the rushing water. “Just makin’ conversation.”
“Reverend Gillis says I’m meant for something else. A ‘higher calling,’ he said.”
“So why you?”
“They picked me out of all the girls in town. Reverend Gillis says it’s because I’m special.”
“Ah, one of those.” The old man sighs.
“You’ve done terrible things,” Rachel says. “They want you gone.”
The old man takes a long swig of his beer, adjusts his position on the rock, rubs his lower back. “Do tell.”
“Economics, sweetie. Cheaper to make steel in Singapore.”
The old man chuckles. “This town’s on a river. Rivers flood every now and then.”
Reverend Gillis and her father warned her he was slippery. “The Jelinek boy?”
“His brother made him a fake ID to buy vodka at the Kwik Stop. Surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”
He turns away. “I don’t wanna talk about that.”
She crosses her arms, grunts. “And all the girls who come here and go home shamed?”
The old man spits his cigarette into the river, wipes at his forehead with a flannel sleeve. “Ever heard of condoms?”
Rachel shakes her head.
“Neither has anyone else in this town, Rachel. Look on the Internet.”
“I’m not allowed to use the Internet.”
“’Course not.” He points toward the gravel beneath the bridge. She can’t see underneath it because of the willow trees hanging over it. “See that? Park’s empty at night. Super easy to hide from the cops down here. Perfect spot for mischief. I seen just about everybody down here at some point.”
“Like who?” Rachel asks, though she knows she shouldn’t. It’s unseemly.
“Won’t name names, Little Miss. ‘Cept one, maybe. That brother of yours—he’s what, sixteen?”
“Seventeen, next week.”
The old man leans in close, but there’s no malice in his eyes. “You know that friend of his, Brody?”
“Uh-huh?” Rachel sees Brody nearly every day when he and Caleb come to the house after school. She yearns for those few minutes before her parents send her to her room.
The old man points to a pavilion with a concrete floor and picnic tables. “Saw ‘em over there the other night. Mighty close, those two.”
Rachel’s fingers tighten on the rock. It’s warm to the touch, slightly gritty from the dirt and moss. “You’re lying,” she says, but it’s more of a question: she’s heard her parents talking, after she’s in bed, when they think she’s asleep. Father thinks Caleb’s a queer, wants to send him to some kind of camp before he turns eighteen; her mother isn’t sure.
“Does it really matter?” the devil says. The sight of his beady dark eyes and drunken smile make her sick to her stomach, and when the breeze shifts, she catches a whiff of his yeasty breath.
“No,” Rachel says. “Yes.” She doesn’t have words, just bile rising in her throat. “You’re lying.”
The devil only sips at his beer, belches. “Sure, honey. That kid’s straight as an arrow. Don’t know how I could’a thought otherwise.”
“Stop it,” she says, and a second later she’s on her feet, the jagged stone clutched in her hand.
The devil shrugs. “I know what I seen.”
“Leave,” she says. “Run away and don’t come back.”
The old man shakes his head, sadly. “Sorry, baby girl. Couldn’t even if I wanted to.”
Rachel wishes he would get up, attack her, try to run away. But he doesn’t.
“Gimme just a sec,” the devil says. He lights another cigarette, laying the pack on the stone beside him, and stares out at the river, the little waterfall over the rocks. A redwing blackbird calls out. He closes his eyes.
“It won’t change a damn thing.”
Rachel’s eyes are wet. Her fingers loosen on the rock. All she has to do is let it fall from her hands and walk away. She could just lie and tell them it’s done. Or that he wasn’t there.
Then she remembers what the Reverend told her. How the devil is silver-tongued. That he’d lie to her, try to steal her resolve.
Rachel raises the rock and brings it down.
A few minutes later, she is on the bridge, heading across the river to the Jiffy Lube. The gray water roils below. Something red floats past, disappearing under the concrete. Rachel tries not to look at it. The front of her white dress is caked in blood and something else, gelatinous and squishy.
Caleb runs to her and squeezes her tight. For a few seconds, she doesn’t want him to let go, but when she looks up, the girl doesn’t recognize him.
“I’ve got blood on me,” she says, and pulls away.
Her parents are waiting in the SUV. They don’t get out as she and Caleb climb in. Everything is fuzzy around the edges, the adults blurred silhouettes in her vision.
“Is it done?” her father asks.
The girl nods.
“Well then,” he says. “I’m proud of you, sweetie. Ready for that celebratory ice cream?”
The girl doesn’t answer. Her breath is quick and shallow. The boy reaches for her hand. She pulls it away.
“Baby?” the mother asks, but the girl can barely hear. “Are you all right?”
Someone reaches out and gives the girl a little squeeze, then a harder one. The mother’s voice gets high and shrill and screams something like, I told you this would happen.
The girl closes her eyes, and then she’s in the gray water, flailing in the current until her feet find the rocks in the shallows. She pulls herself up on the riverbank with her left hand because the right arm ends in a stump. Her skin is grayish-blue, her fingers bent and craggy as twigs. Her knees ache, and there’s a faint crunching sound when she walks. Small, pale things circle her head. She can’t wave them away.
The devil shakes off the cool water and catches her breath.
On the riverbank is a long flat stone, dotted with dark red flecks. On top is a pack of Marlboro Reds, dented and half-smoked. She leans over, picks it up, finds the lighter tucked inside. She flicks it, summons the flame, lifts the filter up to her lips between frail fingertips, inhales deeply.
The taste is good.