by: Todd Andrew Clayton
I’d love to say that it happened somewhere poetic—like while I was driving across the Mojave Desert or on some barren, wave-torn coast in San Francisco, but—truth be told—I don’t remember when it happened, exactly. I just know that when I got back to school the fall after I travelled across the country by bus, I didn’t believe in demons, or Satan, or hell anymore—at least not in the fire-y oblivion and crimson, horned tormentor I’d seen on Flannel grams as a little boy.
More likely than not, it had something to do with the fact that I’d spent the summer traveling to church camps—watching week after week as junior high and high school students rushed to the front of auditoriums to dedicate their lives to Jesus after sermons about salvation and escape left them teary-eyed and vulnerable. Prayers, they were promised, would guarantee them a place in that infamous, holy un-hell, the heaven of movies where God was, and evil was not, and everyone sang and ate and celebrated forever. That, and I read Dostoevsky.
I remember—even in high school—being skeptical about this whole, some-people-just-don’t-make-the-cut bit, but it wasn’t until college that I discovered people who were just as skeptical as I was, and they had Ph.D’s. By my junior year in college, I was certain—and still am—that when we die, no one is sent to burn.
However, what I’ve learned in the years since has been profoundly important for me: demons, it turns out, do exist—not as embodied creatures that struggle with angels in a cosmic battle of good and evil. No, they’re these pernicious little bastards with sharp, tenacious claws, and unforgiving eyes that inhabit our hearts and peer around their corners every so often to remind us of the parts of us that scare us most: our insecurities, our doubts, our shortcomings. When I see them, when I hear their familiar, confident whisper, I am afraid. If I’m not careful, I can plummet, I can plunge, I can spiral without parachute into the depths of hell, which—as it happens—is also real, even though it isn’t a place people go after they die. It’s a place we inhabit all the time: it’s life devoid of purpose, and beauty, life marked by fear and anxiety, life divorced from fierce, forgiving love. We have this language for a reason, because sometimes life is hell, and to call it anything less doesn’t do the torment justice.
The summer after I finished college, I was a nanny for two small children: a four-year old, tawny-haired girl who made mud pies in the backyard, and whose prized doll was named Rainbow Sparkle Jewel, and her six-month old brother, who—by and large—passed the day strapped to the front of my chest while I washed dishes and swept floors and walked to the park.
I pulled up in front of their house one October morning, and, before making my way to the porch, exhaled one of those pregnant sighs, one that reeked of sadness and heartbreak. I clenched the steering wheel before opening the door and dragging myself to the door. I heard her feet first, raindropping on the hardwood floor from her bedroom at the back of the house.
“Todd!” she screamed from the hallway in front of me. She was wearing her fairy wings that would complete her Halloween costume the next week. “Todd, can you come here? I have something important to tell you,” she said, pulling the air with her arm as she motioned me closer. We met at the couch, and she squeezed my leg as I stood next to her. “Come here” she said, beckoning me to sit, which I did. She pulled my face toward hers with her tiny hands—the ones that still fit inside my palms—and pressed her mouth to my ear.
“I am very excited that you are here,” she whispered.
The demons—well, mine at least—say the same thing every time they show up: “You are not good enough. You will always be alone. You are not worthy. No one wants you here.” The gift, the angel, then, is the gentle reminder of friends, and family, and children that the demons are wrong, that hell isn’t where we have to stay, that our value and worth abounds.
She squeezed my neck and curled up on my lap, her pink-and-green wings rising behind her head.
This was originally posted on the author’s website, here.
Todd Andrew Clayton wishes he were good at soccer. He lives in San Diego & writes at coffee shops & in his living room. Someday, he hopes that he can write & get paid for it. Until then, he’s going to grad school. He likes Thai food & wants to go to Ireland before he dies.