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My Best Friend's Exorcism
Author:Grady Hendrix

My Best Friend's Exorcism

Grady Hendrix

Don’t You Forget about Me

The exorcist is dead.

Abby sits in her office and stares at the email, then clicks the blue link. It takes her to the homepage of the paper she still thinks of as the News and Courier, even though it changed its name fifteen years ago. There’s the exorcist floating in the middle of her screen, balding and with a ponytail, smiling at the camera in a blurry headshot the size of a postage stamp. Abby’s jaw aches and her throat gets tight. She doesn’t realize she’s stopped breathing.

The exorcist was driving some lumber up to Lakewood and stopped on I-95 to help a tourist change his tire. He was tightening the lug nuts when a Dodge Caravan swerved onto the shoulder and hit him full-on. He died before the ambulance arrived. The woman driving the minivan had three different painkillers in her system—four if you included Bud Light. She was charged with driving under the influence.

“Highways or dieways,” Abby thinks. “The choice is yours.”

It pops into her head, a catchphrase she doesn’t even remember she remembered, but in that instant she doesn’t know how she ever forgot. Those highway safety billboards covered South Carolina when she was in high school; and in that instant, her office, the conference call she has at eleven, her apartment, her mortgage, her divorce, her daughter—none of it matters.

It’s twenty years ago and she’s bombing over the old bridge in a crapped-out Volkswagen Rabbit, windows down, radio blasting UB40, the air sweet and salty in her face. She turns her head to the right and sees Gretchen riding shotgun, the wind tossing her blond hair, shoes off, sitting Indian-style on the seat, and they’re singing along to the radio at the top of their tuneless lungs. It’s April 1988 and the world belongs to them.

For Abby, “friend” is a word whose sharp corners have been worn smooth by overuse. “I’m friends with the guys in IT,” she might say, or “I’m meeting some friends after work.”

But she remembers when the word “friend” could draw blood. She and Gretchen spent hours ranking their friendships, trying to determine who was a best friend and who was an everyday friend, debating whether anyone could have two best friends at the same time, writing each other’s names over and over in purple ink, buzzed on the dopamine high of belonging to someone else, having a total stranger choose you, someone who wanted to know you, another person who cared that you were alive.

She and Gretchen were best friends, and then came that fall. And they fell.

And the exorcist saved her life.

Abby still remembers high school, but she remembers it as images, not events. She remembers effects, but she’s gotten fuzzy on the causes. Now it’s all coming back in an unstoppable flood. The sound of screaming on the Lawn. The owls. The stench in Margaret’s room. Good Dog Max. The terrible thing that happened to Glee. But most of all, she remembers what happened to Gretchen and how everything got so fucked up back in 1988, the year her best friend was possessed by the devil.

We Got the Beat

1982. Ronald Reagan was launching the War on Drugs. Nancy Reagan was telling everyone to “Just Say No.” EPCOT Center was finally open, Midway released Ms. Pac-Man in arcades, and Abby Rivers was a certified grown-up because she’d finally cried at a movie. It was E.T. the ExtraTerrestrial, and she went back to see it again and again, fascinated by her own involuntary reaction, helpless in the grip of the tears that washed down her face as E.T. and Elliott reached for each other.

It was the year she turned ten.

It was the year of The Party.

It was the year everything changed.

One week before Thanksgiving, Abby marched into Mrs. Link’s fourth-grade classroom with twenty-one invitations shaped like roller skates and invited her entire class to Redwing Rollerway on Saturday December 4 at 3:30 p.m. to celebrate her tenth birthday. This was going to be Abby’s moment. She’d seen Roller Boogie with Linda Blair, she’d seen Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu, she’d seen shirtless Patrick Swayze in Skatetown, U.S.A. After months of practice, she was as good as all three of them put together. No longer would she be Flabby Quivers. Before the eyes of everybody in her class she would become Abby Rivers, Skate Princess.

Thanksgiving break happened, and on the first day back at school Margaret Middleton walked to the front of the classroom and invited everyone to her polo plantation for a day of horseback riding on Saturday, December 4.

“Mrs. Link? Mrs. Link? Mrs. Link?” Abby waved her arm wildly from side to side. “That’s the day of my birthday party.”

“Oh, right,” Mrs. Link said, as if Abby had not thumbtacked an extra-large roller skate with her birthday party information right in the middle of the classroom bulletin board. “But you can move that.”

“But . . .” Abby had never said “no” to a teacher before, so she did the best she could. “But it’s my birthday?”

Mrs. Link sighed and made a reassuring gesture to Margaret Middleton.

“Your party isn’t until three thirty,” she told Abby. “I’m sure everyone can come to your party after riding horses at Margaret’s.”

“Of course they can, Mrs. Link,” Margaret Middleton simpered. “There’ll be plenty of time.”

On the Thursday before her birthday, Abby brought the classroom twenty-five E.T. cupcakes as a reminder. Everyone ate them, which she thought was a good sign. On Saturday, she forced her parents to drive to Redwing Rollerway an hour early so they could set up. By 3:15 the private party room looked like E.T. had exploded all over the walls. There were E.T. balloons, E.T. tablecloths, E.T. party hats, snack-sized Reese’s Pieces next to every E.T. paper plate, a peanut butter and chocolate ice cream cake with E.T.’s face on top, and on the wall behind her seat was Abby’s most treasured possession that could not under any circumstances get soiled, stained, ripped, or torn: an actual E.T. movie poster her dad had brought home from the theater and given to her as a birthday present.

Finally, 3:30 rolled around.

No one came.

At 3:35 the room was still empty.

By 3:40 Abby was almost in tears.

Out on the floor they were playing “Open Arms” by Journey and all the big kids were skating past the Plexiglas window that looked into the private party room, and Abby knew they were laughing at her because she was alone on her birthday. She sunk her fingernails deep into the milky skin on the inside of her wrist, focusing on how bad it burned to keep herself from crying. Finally, at 3:50, when every inch of her wrist was covered in bright red half-moon marks, Gretchen Lang, the weird new kid who’d just transferred from Ashley Hall, was pushed into the room by her mom.

“Hello, hello,” Mrs. Lang chirped, bracelets jangling on her wrists. “I’m so sorry we’re— Where is everybody?”

Abby couldn’t answer.

“They’re stuck on the bridge,” Abby’s mom said, coming to the rescue.

Mrs. Lang’s face relaxed. “Gretchen, why don’t you give your little friend her present?” she said, cramming a wrapped brick into Gretchen’s arms and pushing her forward. Gretchen leaned back, digging in her heels. Mrs. Lang tried another tactic: “We don’t know this character, do we, Gretchen?” she asked, looking at E.T.

She had to be kidding, Abby thought. How could she not know the most popular person on the planet?

“I know who he is,” Gretchen protested. “He’s E.T. the . . . Extra-Terrible?”

Abby could not even fathom. What were these crazy lunatics talking about?

“The extraterrestrial,” Abby corrected, finding her voice. “It means he comes from another planet.”