The year is 1988. High school sophomores Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since fourth grade. But after an evening of skinny-dipping goes disastrously wrong, Gretchen begins to act… different. She’s moody. She’s irritable. And bizarre incidents keep happening whenever she’s nearby. Abby’s investigation leads her to some startling discoveries—and by the time their story reaches its terrifying conclusion, the fate of Abby and Gretchen will be determined by a single question: Is their friendship powerful enough to beat the devil?
Like an unholy hybrid of Beaches and The Exorcist, Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism blends teen angst, adolescent drama, unspeakable horrors, and a mix of ’80s pop songs into a pulse-pounding supernatural thriller. Available May 17th from Quirk Books.
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 Extra-Terrestrial, 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.”
“Isn’t that precious,” Mrs. Lang said. Then she made her excuses and got the hell out of there.
A deadly silence poisoned the air. Everyone shuffled their feet. For Abby, this was worse than being alone. By now, it was completely clear that no one was coming to her birthday party, and both of her parents had to confront the fact that their daughter had no friends. Even worse, a strange kid who didn’t know about extraterrestrials was witnessing her humiliation. Gretchen crossed her arms over her chest, crackling the paper around her gift.
“That’s so nice of you to bring a present,” Abby’s mom said. “You didn’t have to do that.”
Of course she had to do that, Abby thought. It’s my birthday.
“Happy birthday,” Gretchen mumbled, thrusting her present at Abby.
Abby didn’t want the present. She wanted her friends. Why weren’t they here? But Gretchen just stood there like a dummy, gift extended. With all eyes on Abby, she took the present, but she took it fast so that no one got confused and thought she liked the way things were going. Instantly, she knew her present was a book. Was this girl totally clueless? Abby wanted E.T. stuff, not a book. Unless maybe it was an E.T. book?
Even that small hope died after she carefully unwrapped the paper to find a Children’s Bible. Abby turned it over, hoping that maybe it was part of a bigger present that had E.T. in it. Nothing on the back. She opened it. Nope. It really was a Children’s New Testament. Abby looked up to see if the entire world had gone crazy, but all she saw was Gretchen staring at her.
Abby knew what the rules were: she had to say thank you and act excited so nobody’s feelings got hurt. But what about her feelings? It was her birthday and no one was thinking about her at all. No one was stuck on the bridge. Everyone was at Margaret Middleton’s house riding horses and giving Margaret all of Abby’s presents.
“What do we say, Abby?” her mom prompted.
No. She would not say it. If she said it, then she was agreeing this was fine, that it was okay for a weird person she did not know to give her a Bible. If she said it, her parents would think that she and this freak were friends and they’d make sure she came to all of Abby’s birthday parties from now on and she’d never get another present except Children’s Bibles from anyone ever.
“Abby?” her mom said.
“Abs,” her dad said. “Don’t be like this.”
“You need to thank this little girl right now,” her mom said. In a flash of inspiration, Abby realized she had a way out: she could run. What were they going to do? Tackle her? So she ran, shoulder-checking Gretchen and fleeing into the noise and darkness of the rink.
“Abby!” her mom called, and then Journey drowned her out.
Super sincere Steve Perry sent his voice soaring over smashing cymbals and power-ballad guitars that pounded the rink walls with crashing waves as cooing couples skated close.
Abby wove between big kids carrying pizza and pitchers of beer, all of them rolling across the carpet, shouting to their friends, then she crashed into the ladies’ room, burst into a stall, slammed the orange door behind her, collapsed onto the toilet seat, and was miserable.
Everyone wanted to go to Margaret Middleton’s plantation because Margaret Middleton had horses, and Abby was a stupid moron if she thought people wanted to come see her skate. No one wanted to see her skate. They wanted to ride horses, and she was stupid and stupid and stupid to think otherwise.
“Open Arms” got louder as someone opened the door.
“Abby?” a voice said.
It was what’s-her-name. Abby was instantly suspicious. Her parents had probably sent her in to spy. Abby pulled her feet up onto the toilet seat.
Gretchen knocked on the stall door.
“Abby? Are you in there?”
Abby sat very, very still and managed to get her crying down to a mild whimper.
“I didn’t want to give you a Children’s Bible,” Gretchen said, through the stall door. “My mom picked it out. I told her not to. I wanted to get you an E.T. thing. They had one where his heart lit up.”
Abby didn’t care. This girl was terrible. Abby heard movement outside the stall, and then Gretchen was sticking her face under the door. Abby was horrified. What was she doing? She was wriggling in! Suddenly, Gretchen was standing in front of the toilet even though the stall door was closed, which meant privacy. Abby’s mind was blown. She stared at this insane girl, waiting to see what she’d do next. Slowly, Gretchen blinked her enormous blue eyes.
“I don’t like horses,” she said. “They smell bad. And I don’t think Margaret Middleton is a nice person.”
That, at least, made some sense to Abby.
“Horses are stupid,” Gretchen continued. “Everyone thinks they’re neat, but their brains are like hamster brains and if you make a loud noise they get scared even though they’re bigger than we are.”
Abby didn’t know what to say to that.
“I don’t know how to skate,” Gretchen said. “But I think people who like horses should buy dogs instead. Dogs are nice and they’re smaller than horses and they’re smart. But not all dogs. We have a dog named Max, but he’s dumb. If he barks while he’s running, he falls down.”
Abby was starting to feel uncomfortable. What if someone came in and saw this weird person standing in the stall with her? She knew she had to say something, but there was only one thing on her mind, so she said it: “I wish you weren’t here.”
“I know,” Gretchen nodded. “My mom wanted me to go to Margaret Middleton’s.”
“Then why didn’t you?” Abby asked.
“You invited me first,” Gretchen said.
A lightning bolt split Abby’s skull in two. Exactly! This was what she had been saying. Her invitation had been first! Everyone should be HERE with HER because she had invited them FIRST and Margaret Middleton COPIED her. This girl had the right idea.
Maybe everything wasn’t ruined. Maybe Abby could show this weirdo how good she was at skating, and she’d tell everyone at school. They’d all want to see, but she’d never have another birthday party again, so they’d never see her skate unless they begged her to do it in front of the whole school, and then she might do it and blow everyone’s minds, but only if they begged her a lot. She had to start by impressing this girl and that wouldn’t be hard. This girl didn’t even know how to skate.
“I’ll teach you how to skate if you want,” Abby said. “I’m really good.”
“You are?” Gretchen asked.
Abby nodded. Someone was finally taking her seriously.
“I’m really good,” she said.
After Abby’s dad rented skates, Abby taught Gretchen how to lace them super tight and helped her walk across the carpet, showing her how to pick up her feet high so she wouldn’t trip. Abby led Gretchen to the baby skate zone and taught her some basic turns, but after a few minutes she was dying to strut her stuff.
“You want to go in the big rink?” Abby asked.
Gretchen shook her head.
“It’s not scary if I stay with you,” Abby said. “I won’t let anything bad happen.”
Gretchen thought about it for a minute.
“Will you hold my hands?”
Abby grabbed Gretchen’s hands and pulled her onto the floor just as the announcer said it was Free Skate, and suddenly the rink was full of teenagers whizzing past them at warp speed. One boy lifted a girl by the waist in the middle of the floor and they spun around and the DJ turned on the mirror ball and stars were gliding over everything, and the whole world was spinning. Gretchen was flinching as speed demons tore past, so Abby turned around and backskated in front of her, pulling her by both soft, sweaty hands, merging them into the flow. They started skating faster, taking the first turn, then faster, and Gretchen lifted one leg off the floor and pushed, and then the other, and then they were actually skating, and that’s when the drums started and Abby’s heart kicked off and the piano and the guitar started banging and “We Got the Beat” came roaring over the PA. The lights hitting the mirror ball pulsed and they were spinning with the crowd, orbiting around the couple in the center of the floor, and they had the beat.
Freedom people marching on their feet
Stallone time just walking in the street
They won’t go where they don’t know
But they’re walking in line
We got the beat!
We got the beat!
Abby had the lyrics 100 percent wrong, but it didn’t matter. She knew, more than she had ever known anything in her entire life, that she and Gretchen were the ones the Go-Go’s were singing about. They had the beat! To anyone else watching, they were two kids going around the rink in a slow circle, taking the corners wide while all the other skaters zoomed past, but that’s not what was happening. For Abby, the world was a Day-Glo Electric Wonderland full of hot pink lights, and neon green lights, and turquoise lights, and magenta lights, and they were flashing on and off with every beat of the music and everyone was dancing and they were flying so fast their skates were barely touching the ground, sliding around corners, picking up speed, and their hearts beat with the drums, and Gretchen had come to Abby’s birthday party because Abby had invited her first and Abby had a real E.T. poster and now they could eat the entire cake all by themselves.
And somehow Gretchen knew exactly what Abby was thinking. She was smiling back at Abby, and Abby didn’t want anyone else at her birthday party now, because her heart was beating in time with the music and they were spinning and Gretchen shouted out loud:
“This! Is! Awesome!”
Then Abby skated into Tommy Cox, got tangled up in his legs, and landed on her face, driving her top tooth through her lower lip and spraying a big bib of blood all down her E.T. shirt. Her parents had to drive her to the emergency room, where Abby received three stitches. At some point, Gretchen’s parents retrieved their daughter from the roller rink, and Abby didn’t see her again until homeroom on Monday.
That morning, her face was tighter than a balloon ready to burst. Abby walked into homeroom early, trying not to move her swollen lips, and the first thing she heard was Margaret Middleton.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t come,” Margaret snipped, and Abby saw her looming over Gretchen’s desk. “Everyone was there. They all stayed late. Are you scared of horses?”
Gretchen sat meekly in her chair, head lowered, hair trailing on her desk. Lanie Ott stood by Margaret’s side, helping her berate Gretchen.
“I rode a horse and it took a high jump twice,” Lanie Ott said.
Then the two of them saw Abby standing in the door.
“Ew,” Margaret said. “What happened to your face? It looks like barf.”
Abby was paralyzed by the righteous anger welling up inside her. She had been to the emergency room! And now they were being mean about it? Not knowing what else to do, Abby tried telling the truth.
“Tommy Cox skated into me and I had to get stitches.”
At the mention of Tommy Cox’s name, Lanie Ott opened and closed her mouth uselessly, but Margaret was made of sterner stuff.
“He did not,” she said. And Abby realized that, oh my God, Margaret could just say Abby was a liar and no one would ever believe her. Margaret continued, “It’s not nice to lie and it’s rude to ignore other people’s invitations. You’re rude. You’re both rude.”
That’s when Gretchen snapped her head up.
“Abby’s invitation was first,” she said, eyes blazing. “So you’re the rude one. And she’s not a liar. I saw it.”
“Then you’re both liars,” Margaret said.
Someone was reaching over Abby’s shoulder and knocking on the open door.
“Hey, any of you little dudes know where—aw, hey, sweetness.”
Tommy Cox was standing three inches behind Abby, his curly blond hair tumbling around his face. The top button of his shirt was undone to show a gleaming puka shell necklace, and he was smiling with his impossibly white teeth. Heavy gravity was coming off his body in waves and washing over Abby.
Her heart stopped beating. Everyone’s hearts stopped beating.
“Dang,” he said, furrowing his brow and examining Abby’s lower lip. “Did I do that?”
No one had ever looked so closely at Abby’s face before, let alone the coolest senior at Albemarle Academy. She managed to nod.
“Gnarly,” he said. “Does it hurt?”
“A little?” Abby managed to say.
He looked unhappy, so she changed her mind.
“No biggie,” she squeaked.
Tommy Cox smiled and Abby almost fell down. She had said something that made Tommy Cox smile. It was like having a superpower.
“Coolness,” he said. Then he held out a can of Coke, condensation beading on the surface. “It’s cold. For your face, right?”
Abby hesitated then took the Coke. You weren’t allowed to go to the vending machines until seventh grade, and Tommy Cox had gone to the vending machines for Abby and bought her a Coke.
“Coolness,” she said.
“Excuse me, Mr. Cox,” Mrs. Link said, pushing through the door. “You need to find your way back to the upper school building before you get a demerit.”
Mrs. Link stomped to her desk and threw down her bag. Everyone was still staring at Tommy Cox.
“Sure thing, Mrs. L,” he said. Then he held up a hand. “Gimme some skin, tough chick.”
In slow motion Abby gave him five. His hand was cool and strong and warm and hard but soft. Then he turned to go, took a step, looked back over his shoulder, and winked.
“Stay chill, little Betty,” he said.
Everyone heard it.
Abby turned to Gretchen and smiled and her stitches ripped and her mouth filled with salt. But it was worth it when she turned and saw Margaret Middleton standing there like a dummy with no comeback and nothing to say. They didn’t know it then, but that’s when everything started, right there in Mrs. Link’s homeroom: Abby grinning at Gretchen with big blood-stained teeth, and Gretchen smiling back shyly.
Excerpted from My Best Friend’s Exorcism © Grady Hendrix, 2016