There’s a devil down in the basement of the convent, and it only talks to Helena. The other girls, it says, are too pure; it can’t touch them. But Helena has the devil inside of her and it can recognize it, that Helena-devil. It likes her. She can tell, because when she goes down the stairs it turns into a little girl just like her.
Do you want to hurt people? it says – perfect Ukrainian, though its accent is strange. The devil wears her smile wrong: jagged at one edge, like all the knives they aren’t supposed to touch.
“No,” says Helena. “Sister Olga says hurting people is bad, and we shouldn’t.”
Didn’t say what you should do, says the devil. I said what do you want to do?
“I want to be good,” Helena says.
No you don’t, says the devil, or else you wouldn’t be talking to me, would you.
The next time Helena sneaks away from prayer and goes down to the basement, the devil opens its hands and drops a pile of candy on the floor. Helena’s stomach snarls at her. She’s only seen candy in stories; she didn’t know it smelled like colors.
You can eat it, says the devil. Come on. Aren’t you hungry?
“No,” says Helena. “Where did you get the candy?”
I stole it, says the devil. The guy at the shop, he beats his wife and drinks too much. If I stole from him, is that bad? What do you think?
“I don’t know,” Helena says, looking at the candy. The devil drops down to the ground, sits, unwraps a piece of candy and eats it. Its tongue isn’t forked the way that it is in stories. It looks just like her tongue.
Just one, it says. Helena has taken a step closer, and she didn’t even notice. The devil wears her eyes wrong: they’re too cunning, like Sister Olga right before she raises her hand up.
“Eve only ate a bite of the apple,” Helena says.
And look where it got her, says the devil. You wouldn’t be here without that, would you?
“That’s sin,” Helena says.
That’s life, the devil says. And you haven’t got much of it left, yeah? One piece and you can live another day. The women up there say they’re working for God and they hit you. All I want is to give you food.
“Why,” says Helena.
The devil smiles, like an inside joke. I can see a light in you, it says. You’ve got potential.
Helena shifts from foot to foot. No one has ever said she has potential before; mostly they say she has bad things in her soul, and they need to be taken out by force. The devil has eaten three pieces of candy and its tongue is blue and red and green, like stained glass windows. It hasn’t left her. It’s going to leave her, soon, because eventually it’ll realize she’s boring and made of bad things.
Aren’t you hungry? says the devil.
“No,” says Helena, and runs for the stairs.
She comes back anyways. Down in the basement the devil is full-grown, a woman in a leather jacket like all the stories Helena isn’t supposed to know about. It’s drumming one foot against the ground. The rhythm in its head is probably rock music, or something else Helena doesn’t understand.
“What happened to you,” she says.
The devil tilts its head and watches her, lazy like a cat – only not like a cat, because Helena has only seen one cat and the nuns killed it. So. Like a cat that nuns can’t kill, that’s how the devil looks. You ever wanted a future? it says. Holds out its hands, like ta-dah.
“I don’t want to be that,” Helena says, which is the fifth lie she has told the devil.
The devil takes a step closer, crouches down to her level, watches her steady. Then don’t, it says. Be something else instead. Be whatever you want to be. I can help you.
“I want to be good,” Helena whispers.
The devil watches her, sad and fond. It opens up its hand; inside of its palm is another piece of candy, this one bright red. When Helena reaches out and touches her fingertips to its leather jacket, she learns that it is not snakeskin. It could be, though. This is the sort of story they’re telling together.
You just have to reach out and take it, the devil says. Helena holds her breath for one second, two, and then she reaches out quick and she does.