Nothing could have prepared Clara for the sensation. As the demon entered her, it felt as if a frigid mist were pumping into her veins. The cold seeped into her, but not just through her mouth or nose or even her skin’s pores. It came in through the spaces between every cell in her body, and it made her aware of just how permeable she was. Jim’s voice transitioned from external to internal, as if it were coming from Clara’s own mouth. For a moment she felt as if she were going to collapse, the strength sapped away from her. She took a breath, and then another, and she realized that on the contrary, she felt stronger than she ever had. Her entire body seemed to weigh a quarter as much as it did.
It was intimate. Yet Jim no longer had a real physical presence. She did not feel crowded out of her own body, even though she now shared it with the demon.
In the back of her mind, she sensed the history stored within the demon. As if the memory were her own, she could glimpse a vast disc of ethereal dust in a dim expanse, brown and blue wisps slowly revolving around a sphere that was so perfectly black that Clara thought it looked more like a hole in space.
“What is this place?” she asked, and because it was Jim’s memory she had recalled, she did not need to describe it.
“An old memory of home,” he said, though Clara could not determine if there had been a sound audible to anyone else or if the words had simply been in her head. The vision abruptly disappeared. “Let us set these things aside for now.”
“What about your body?” she asked. When Jim had entered hers, the smoky frame that had been strapped to the chair had started to break apart and float away, as if it were evaporating.
“My body is not one of matter, Sweet Clara, I-“
“I will call you Jim and you will call me Clara. No need for ‘formalities,’ I think.”
Jim was silent for a moment, but he could not hide his general tone of thought. He considered it and approved of the decision. “My body is not one of matter, Clara. The substance does not fall into the classical categories of matter or energy. It is something else. Something alien to this universe.”
“And when you leave my body?”
“If I am able,” he corrected her. They had discussed it at length, when the faceless men were absent and Thall was out. “Did you know that humans replace every atom in their bodies roughly every seven years?”
“There is a philosophical concept. I don’t know what its name is in this universe, but in a different one it is called the Ship of Theseus. Theseus is a great hero, and thus his ship retains a great deal of cultural value to his seafaring people. But ships need repairs. A rotten plank is replaced here, a tattered sail is replaced there. Every year the people sail the ship of Theseus around the harbor in celebration of his actions, but after centuries, there is not a single splinter of wood within that ship that Theseus ever saw in his lifetime. So the philosopher asks – is it the same ship?”
“I suppose not,” said Clara.
“Then is Clara dead, and am I inhabiting some imposter? You are, I would think, older than seven years.”
“What is your point?”
“The point is that the body is irrelevant when you have, or perhaps more precisely: are a spirit. I shed that body like you might shed a dress. Albeit a little more permanently. The difference between us is that it is far easier for me to shed it all in one go, whereas you do it gradually.”
“And so you could easily find a replacement?”
“In a sense I have. Your body is my replacement.”
Something in Clara’s mind lurched. Jim sensed it. “A condition I intend as temporary. We must return to my master, as I suspect he might have some theories on how to find a new vessel for me. He will be far more pleased to find me than you, I should think.”
“I won’t grow horns, though? Cloven hooves, a tail?”
“Would you like to?”
Clara shuddered. Not long ago she had professionally allowed strange men to enter her body, but in a far more temporary and physiologically conventional sense. She immediately began to second-guess her decision to allow Jim to possess her, but the door, as it were, had slammed shut behind her. It was time to move, and quickly.
“This will go more easily if you give me control for the time being,” said Jim, and suddenly Clara’s right leg stepped forward. But it overextended and she nearly fell over.
“Really?” asked Clara.
There was no hiding his embarrassment. Surely most demonic possessions allowed the demon to read the host’s thoughts, not the other way around.
“You’re right. You handle the meat stuff.”
“Bodies. Meat. You’re far more familiar with it than I am. And I must confess that this is my first time possessing someone.”
“Very well. I will be gentle then,” said Clara, trying to suppress a smirk.
Clara and Jim had talked about a plan. Clara was free to come and go as she pleased when there was no business that needed attention. But they had both guessed that Jim’s exit of the building – or indeed the chair – might alert Mr. Thall, and so time was of the essence.
They walked back toward the kitchen, where there was a door leading to the garden in the back. They got three feet from the chair to which Jim had been strapped when Jaquis walked into the room, carrying a telephone on a platter.
“Mr. Thall for… you… m’am…” he said, his eyes falling on the chair’s empty straps and his usual professional deference shifting inexorably toward a kind of superior disdain.
“Jaquis, I… I am afraid that I will be unable to-“ and then a different voice erupted from her mouth: “Y’SHAAG NURSTRASSH EE-JUURE!” and her hands, now raised up as if she were preparing to box the septuagenarian, began to glow a shimmering dark red. Strange, fleshy-looking ropes appeared around Jaquis’ mouth, wrists, waist, and ankles, binding him in place where he stood as the platter and phone clattered to the ground.
“Jim, what did you just do?” she asked, internally.
She did, and suppressed a wave of nausea as she realized that they not been ropes, but some sort of cephalopod-like tentacles. “It will wear off, right?” she asked.
Thankfully Jim did not feel such an impulse when they passed Pauline, the cook, as they crashed through the kitchen and slammed the door open. Pauline merely gaped at them as mixing bowls and utensils tumbled off a prep table.
“You know how to get to Airbright’s house?” asked Jim.
“Yes,” she said.
“And you can keep running?” he asked.
“I think so,” she said, leaping into the air with Jim’s borrowed strength and clearing the twelve-foot brick wall behind the building with two feet to spare.
Clara ran faster than she had ever run before, but as she pumped her legs and felt her heart race, she also realized that her wrists were feeling cold – icy, even.
She stopped for a moment and pulled back the sleeves of her coat.
There were broad bands around her wrists, made from a dark, tough metal that was almost blue. They were positively frigid. Cold Iron. She had seen these shackles before, but they had been on the body of Whispering Jim. A body that had evaporated into the ether.
“I was afraid of that,” said Jim. “But it looks like these things stay on my body, whichever body that happens to be.”
“What does it mean?” she asked.
“It means that you and me, we’re both Richard Airbright’s slaves now.”
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2016)