The priest’s backhanded slap caught me hard on the cheekbone, and my head twisted around with such force I thought he’d broken my neck. That bastard. He thumbed something cold against my forehead and mumbled a prayer I couldn’t hear over the ringing in my ears. Red-eyed and spittle-toothed, he looked quite wretched as he sat there, straddling me on the bed. Judging by the stench of piss and vomit that encircled us like a graveyard fog, I probably looked worse.
The priest lifted the silver cross from my forehead and touched it to his lips. He said the demon was gone but a monster remained. I spat blood in his face, accusing him of fake news, of failure to move on. He said if I loved my family, I’d get as far away from them as possible.
Afterwards, I tried to act normal, but my wife refused to leave me alone with our daughters. A fortnight passed before I was allowed back in our bedroom and even then she wouldn’t let me see her naked, saying the way I looked at her made her uncomfortable. While she slept, I kissed the back of her neck where it curves into her shoulder and remembered the promises we made to each other on our wedding day. Then I licked my lips to savor the salty-sweet taste of her skin.
The night I bit her she said I had to go.
The priest offered me a place to stay if I moved to Oymyakon, in the Sakha Republic of Russia. The coldest turning off the Road of Bones. The video showed an attractive young woman throwing a pan of freshly-boiled water into the air before disappearing into her own, private blizzard. The truth is less glamorous. Everyone shits in a shed outside because it’s too cold for plumbing. Mobile phones don’t work, and we all live on a diet of horse meat because crops won’t grow.
Before the demon, I used to enjoy homemade American meatloaf. Lobster and shrimp in my favourite restaurant. Now everything tastes like tofu with a side of nothing. The priest was right, the demon is gone but a monster remains.
And it’s hungry.
In moonlight, I head for the funeral home. Nobody gets buried quickly in Oymyakon, because it takes three days to thaw the ground enough to dig a grave. I watch through the windows, waiting for a corpse to be left unattended, but it’s like they know I’m here.
There’s no playground at the school. Even in fur-lined coats and scarves, it would be dangerous for the kids to play outside. Parents march their offspring through the main entrance, and I wonder if my daughters miss me. They had big eyes and the smoothest, tenderest skin. The children in Oymyakon look like they’ve been dressed to minimize temptation.
“I know what you are,” says a voice behind me. I spin around, equally alarmed and surprised. I haven’t heard anyone speak English since I arrived. The old man introduces himself as Ivan Kuznetsov and says, “There’s something I need to show you.”
“My name is Abenayo,” says the Ghanaian woman behind the lectern, “and I’m recovering from demonic possession.”
Kuznetsov isn’t here but this is what he wanted to show me. Fifty seats facing a modest stage. A room full of shadows on the edge of town.
“My husband was a doctor,” says Abenayo, “He worked in the same hospital as my sister.” She swallows hard, clutching her cardigan like she doesn’t trust the buttons. “I still don’t know who seduced who.”
The seats are filled with men and women from all over the world. Most of us speak English. Some don’t.
“I prayed to God,” she says. “But it wasn’t God who answered.”
Before I killed him, Kuznetsov told me that Oymyakon is where they send the survivors. The support group was his idea. He wanted to help us recover.
“I burned my sister’s house while she was asleep,” says Abenayo. “Then I burned the hospital. After that, I burned everything I could. It felt so…right.”
Abenayo doesn’t look like she’s recovering. As she unbuttons her cardigan and unzips her jeans, she looks like she’d burn this whole fucking place down, given half a chance.
“At first I just washed my feet in it,” she says, her clothes falling down around her ankles. “More recently, I’ve taken baths.” Stripped to her underwear, her skin is half boiled from her body. Angry welts explode like fireworks across her chest. “Bathing in gasoline,” she says, “is almost as good as the burn.”
Nobody gasps. Nobody looks away. We’re all monsters here; Abenayo’s the only one who’s honest enough to wear it on the outside.
When it’s my turn to speak, I don’t tell them my name. My human name is irrelevant. “The priest who exorcised my demon,” I say, “he took something from me. Something important.” Around the room, heads bob in agreement. “Nobody asked me what I wanted. Nobody cared about me. And now I’m here, and I’m pissed, and I’m hungry.”
The audience responds with enthusiastic grunts, and I can feel something rising inside me. I’m Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Al Pacino in City Hall.
“I want my demon back,” I say.
I slam my fist onto the lectern. “I want my demon back!”
“I want my demon back.”
“Say it louder!”
“I want my demon back!”
“If we burn their houses.”
“If we sacrifice the innocent.”
“We can bring the fires of hell to Oymyakon!”
Kuznetsov didn’t fight me. Tied to a chair in my back room, he understood this was always his fate. As I chewed on his severed fingers and peeled long strips of flesh from his body, he said he knew it was only a matter of time.
He’d hoped to make us better. But it’s just too cold for hope in Oymyakon.
Christopher Stanley lives on a hill in England with three sons who share a birthday but aren’t triplets. In his spare time he writes worry dragons into people’s basements and monsters into the plumbing. His stories have been published in The Molotov Cocktail, The Short Story and Corvus Review. Follow him on Twitter @allthosestrings or visit his website.