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The Expiration Date of Affection
Zachary Davis

It had been a been a rough week from a bad month out of an even worse year, and Brother Mark had recently slipped past the edge of no longer caring. It was difficult to put an exact timeline on these kinds of things, but he was certain there was a definite moment in time that could be marked as the dissolving point of their relationship. His problem was in choosing which among many events was the worst, the one that could truly be looked to as the beginning of the end. In seminary, Brother Mark’s World Religions professor—a former supermarket manager who had come to the faith late in life—had referred to that particular point in time where a relationship begins its downward slide as “the expiration date of affection.”

However the end got started, Brother Mark just wished for it to be really and truly over. For some reason, though, he had been unable to bring himself to end it. This, more than anything else, was on his mind as he stood over the possessed man, readying himself for another long, boring exorcism.

“Come out, unclean spirit,” Brother Mark said, just barely able to conceal his total lack of interest.

If I seriously have to do this one more time, came across his mind, but Brother Mark was unable to finish his thought due to an almost profound feeling of ennui. He let out a long, sustained sigh.

“What? Is this not interesting to you, or something?” the possessed man said. The man had recently become the target of demonic inhabitance after accidentally sneezing on the Eucharist while receiving communion. To counter his newly acquired infernal strength, friends and loved ones held him fast to the ground, pinning his limbs to the floor to stifle his movements. The spirit inside him was known as Garaziel, who was a frequent visitor to the earthly realm. Long ago, he had been given the ignominious title of Lord Sovereign of All Stinkbugs, which was immensely embarrassing. All of the really cool insects had already been spoken for. Garaziel would have accepted anything other than stinkbugs, even dung beetles, which had a sort of sinister sound to them that Garaziel thought he could work to his advantage. But it was not to be. His fellow demons were always quick with jokes, although being demons they lacked the essentials for a sense of humor. What passed for jokes in Hell were mainly just recapitulations of facts, but with a sarcastic syllabic accentuation. He could not count the number of times he had been confronted with “Look, there walks the sovereign of stinkbugs!” Jerks—it wasn’t even clever. Garaziel really hated that place, so he took every opportunity he could to leave, almost single-handedly filling up Hell’s volunteer possession roster.

He and Brother Mark had first met a little over a year ago during a routine exorcism at a nursing home where one of the residents had temporarily forgotten the sabbath, along with just about everything else she had once known. Her cycles of forgetting and remembering were temporary, but they still counted to the powers that took an interest in that sort of thing, and Garaziel had taken the opportunity to enter this world. Even though the actual exorcism was rather quickly completed, there was an electric feeling of excitement in the air throughout the proceedings, and both Garaziel and Brother Mark realized there was something magical about that first encounter, an unnamed feeling that they had been pursuing, in one way or another, ever since.

Work had brought them together, and work had kept the relationship going longer, perhaps, than it should have. It was good for a while—there was no denying that. They worked off each other well, a near perfect antiphony of call and response, and there had been more than one late night exorcism that had gone well into the early morning, not so much out of necessity but because it felt too good to stop. Brother Mark had recited so many psalms on those occasions, almost none of them actually part of the rite of exorcism, just to cling to the moment and do everything to keep it from passing. Along the way, though, something in their connection had soured, or gone stale, and it had long since passed its expiration date. All that was needed now was someone brave enough to be the one to throw it out.

“Are you even listening?” Garaziel said through the possessed man, globs of bile and thick ichor flowing from his mouth and nose between sentences and giving his voice a nasal, whining quality to it.

“Hmm? What’s that?” Brother Mark said, forgetting his place for a moment.

“Are you kidding me?”

”No, I just...didn’t catch that last bit,” Brother Mark said, and then, remembering his job (and wanting to save face in front of the possessed man’s gathered loved ones), he said “But that doesn’t matter, anyway. For thou art full of lies. And, thine untruths are...” Brother Mark yawned, “...made known.”

“Oh, come on!” Garaziel said, easily flinging one of the possessed man’s brothers away with a flop of the arm. “Are we seriously going to do this again?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Brother Mark said as he flicked holy water onto the afflicted man’s body, eliciting a howl of rage and some flailings that were easily controlled by the possessed man’s family. Brother Mark knew it was an act, and he rolled his eyes. He hated when Garaziel faked it.

“Yes, you do,” Garaziel said. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’re just in one of your little moods now.”

Brother Mark busied himself with the ritual, trying to ignore Garaziel to show that the demon couldn’t get under his skin.

“You see this?” Garaziel said to the possessed man’s family. “This is a little known part of this ritual, known as the silent treatment.”

“Hardly,” Brother Mark said.

“Forgive him, folks—he always has to have the last word.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You sure about that?”

Brother Mark was silent for a moment, and then he saw the possessed man smile.

“Yes, I’m sure”

The possessed man sat up, and his loved ones clung to him, trying to drag him back down, but to no effect. 

“Is it, like, some pathological thing with you where you feel the need to always have the last word? I mean, would it kill you to just once let me have the last word, from any conversation?”

“I don’t think this is the right time or place to be having this conversation,” Brother Mark said.

“There you go again! Just had to have the last word, at any cost. And, where else could we possibly have this discussion, anyway?” Garaziel replied. “This is the only time we ever get to speak to each other.”

“Don’t start this again, please,” Brother Mark said.

“Why shouldn’t I? What, do you have somewhere more important to be right now?”

Brother Mark frowned, knitting his eyebrows. This was going to be a long day. He kissed his surplice and quickly made the Sign of the Cross, his fingers limp and his hand flailing a bit, literally just going through the motions. He looked down at the possessed man and sighed.

“Can you at least pretend to be into this?” Garaziel said.

“Maybe it would be more exciting if this was in any way a rare occurrence, but this is the fourth time this week. I mean, how many times do I need to kick you out before you....”

“Before I what?”

“Before you, you know, take the hint.”

Garaziel threw the possessed man’s family aside and stood up, getting in Brother Mark’s face.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Garaziel said.

“You know what it means. We’ve talked about this. How many times can we keep doing this? You show up, make some poor soul speak Latin in reverse, you say some blasphemous things, you levitate a little bit, and then I toss you out.”

“Is that seriously how you view what I bring to this relationship? I mean, you think I’m so predictable, but did you even notice that I haven’t said a single blasphemous thing? Did you even register that I had this guy speaking backwards French instead of Latin? What about the inverted crosses that have shown up on everyone’s foreheads? That took a lot of work, and you don’t pay any attention. I’m predictable? I’m boring? When was the last time you did anything new and exciting? You come in, fling some holy water, kiss your stupid scarf—”

“It’s a surplice!” Brother Mark hissed. “You know this, stinkbug king.”

All light in the room vanished. The possessed man’s family sucked air through their teeth, not knowing the specific details but recognizing an insult when they heard one. A great wave of heat swept through the room, carrying with it a whiff of sulfur along with a much heavier odor of crushed stinkbugs. The musty, clinging scent hung heavy in the air. An ignition of light flared from behind the possessed man’s eyes, now glowing with an infernal fire and illuminating the room.

“Did you know,” Garaziel said, addressing the possessed man’s family, “that I revealed to him—in confidence—that I was known as the Lord Sovereign of All Stinkbugs. Now, that was something that was never meant to be between anyone but him and me. Obviously, revealing that was difficult for me because it’s not the kind of thing that looks impressive on a demon’s resume, and maybe I’m stupid or naive for trusting this guy to keep it between us, but I guess I just assumed that confessions were always kept secret.”

“Really?” Brother Mark said. “Aren’t you being just a bit melodramatic, here?”

“That was a secret!”

“It’s a title! Anyone with an interest in demonology can find out everything they want about you. Here,” Brother Mark said as he took out his phone. “I’ll Google you. First result—well, that’s not you.” Brother Mark scrolled through the search results for what felt like a long time to everyone in the room, including him. 

Finally, Brother Mark found something of interest. “Here—you’re in The Sworn Book of Honorious,” he said.

“I’m mentioned in passing, as a footnote, telling conjurers to be careful with their spells because they wouldn’t want to try and invoke the High Regent of Spiders and end up bringing me into the world! It’s humiliating, and you think it’s OK to bring that up in front of other people? It’s a betrayal of trust.”

“Oh, really?” Brother Mark said, holding up his phone so Garaziel could see it. “If that’s a betrayal of trust, what would you call this?”

The fire behind the possessed man’s eyes went out, and all light returned to the room. The smell of sulfur dissipated, but the scent of stinkbug lingered, as it tends to do.

“I don’t know what that is,” Garaziel said, lamely, and sounding much more pathetic than he had intentioned. 

“That’s a post on Craigslist’s casual encounters page,” one of the possessed man’s relatives said, far too quickly—and accurately—to be able to later feign unfamiliarity. The rest of the family turned toward him, then performed a collective shrug, as if to say “That makes sense.”

“Exactly right!” Brother Mark said. “And on this post you have that you are interested in the religiously curious (no Mormons, please) for a night or three of diabolical affliction. Then you have d4tmw, whatever that means.”

Everyone looked at the relative that had spoken previously, to seek clarification. He was silent at first, but then figured what the hell? “That means he’s a demon looking for men, women, or transpersons.”

Brother Mark stared at the relative for a moment. “If you need to confess anything once we’re done here, just let me know, my son.”

“Of course,” Garaziel said, “you can be sure anything you tell him will be kept in the strictest confidence.”

“You can’t honestly be upset about that,” Brother Mark said.

“I can’t? So, now you’re going to tell me what I can and can’t do?”

“That’s literally the point of this ritual!”

“You know what I mean. I’m talking about you thinking you have the right to tell me how I’m supposed to feel.”

“I never told you how to feel—”

“You just did, actually,” said Garaziel, interrupting.

“—but what I did say was that it doesn’t make sense for you to be mad about this. I mean, I don’t know if the confessional seal even applies to demons!” Brother Mark said.

“Did you even bother to look it up?”

Brother Mark said nothing.

“You didn’t, did you? You never bothered to look it up because you never had any intention of keeping my title a secret. So, what am I to you? You’re the number one exorcist in town because of me. You would just be another useless priest if it wasn’t for me. You think you’re the only game in town? Not even close, man. Nowhere near it at all.”

“Oh, is that way you’re soliciting on the Internet, because it’s so easy for you to find another exorcist?”

“Oh, you moron!” Garaziel said. “I’m looking for people to possess so I can see you! The Internet is full of more potential sinners. I’m not looking for another exorcist—I’m looking to spend as much time with you as possible.”

“And that’s the problem!” Brother Mark said. “I feel smothered by the weight of your neediness. I just...I need a break.”

“Wait,” Garaziel said. “You need a break, or you need a break-up?”

“Look,” Brother Mark said, “it’s not you, it’s me.”

“Don’t give me that cliched crap. And don’t lie to me. I mean, do you really think I don’t know a lie when I hear one? And, if you’re going to lie, you should probably make sure to not say how you really feel, like, immediately before the lie! It’s sloppy.”

“It’s just something people say,” Brother Mark said.

“Well, you’re not people. You’re you, so say something you would say and miss me with that other nonsense.”

“This just isn’t working, anymore,” Brother Mark said.

“Did you read a book of overused phrases before you came here today? Besides the Bible, I mean.”

“What do you want? You want to hear that I can’t stand the idea of doing this with you another second? That I feel like if I have to keep going the way I’ve been going that my soul is going to shrivel?“

“I’d rather hear that than hear you pretend to be a nice guy,” Garaziel said.

“We’re not doing each other any favors with this, you know that? I can see that you’re miserable, but that just ends up making me even more frustrated because I get to thinking how dare he be miserable! I...I don’t want this, anymore.”

“You know,” Garaziel said, “you took over my life, and now you want out?”

“I need out. And so do you. We both need out. It’s like we’re eating each other, and both of us are spoiled, but neither of us has the guts to throw the other away. It’s almost like we’re doing this out of spite. You know that, don’t you?”

The possessed man turned from Brother Mark and sat down in the midst of his family. Garaziel stepped out of the possessed man’s body, delivering him into the hands of his loved ones. There wasn’t much time—he would have to go back soon.

“Yeah,” Garaziel said with his true voice, which sounded like the rustling of thousands of small wings in concert, “I know. You’re the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said, smiling.

“Same here,” Brother Mark said, unable to keep himself from smiling in return, for one last time.

“Well, amen to that, then,” Garaziel said before disappearing in a vortex of flame.

It occurred to Brother Mark to say something in response, something pithy, perhaps, or even a few words of congratulations for such a great closing line, but he thought better of it. 

It seemed only right to let Garaziel have the last word.

Zachary Davis is a professional writer and editor. His work has appeared in print and online in The Fertile Source, Bartleby Snopes, Forty Ounce Bachelors, Drunk Monkeys, the Anthology of Appalachian Writers (numerous volumes), The First Line, Five2One Magazine and Carve, and he is the Fiction Editor of Fluent Magazine.