I met Sam for the first time that day.

I was sitting at work listening to the local morning radio show when they began to discuss a meme that was sweeping the internet known as the “Charlie Charlie Challenge”. The set up was that you drew on a piece of paper a cross dividing it into four sections and wrote yes and no in the sections in a checkboard arrangement. You then placed one pencil along the horizontal axis and balanced a second pencil vertically across the first (or vice-versa). Then, you say the words “Charlie, Charlie can we play?” and the pencil would swing to point at either yes or no. The story was that Charlie was a Mexican demon that was summoned in this way and after being invoked would answer yes or no questions. Apparently the internet went nuts over this despite it having been around for years.

This was the idea I was pondering as Sam walked through the doors.

“Hello?” he shouted, not being able to see me through the blinds of my office.

I stood and went to greet him. “Hi,” I said cordially. “Can I help you?”

“Actually,” he said, “I think I’m the one who can help you.” That was when I finally snapped out of auto-pilot and noticed what was standing before me. Sam was clearly well over seven feet tall and somehow managed to stand erect despite the ceiling being a mere six and a half feet. Moreover, I couldn’t make out any of his features. I could make out the outline of his figure and face, but his individual features were veiled in darkness.

As the entirety of his persona washed over me, I was forced to retreat back into my office. He followed calmly and sat in the chair opposite mine.

“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to regain some professionalism. “What do you mean you can help me?”

Sam’s features lit up just enough for me to see his smile. “You’re wondering about Charlie, aren’t you?”

“How could you know that?”

Sam’s features suddenly snapped into the form of a much less surreal or intimidating being. He suddenly appeared to be a plump, bald man whose nose was just a bit too large for his face and whose eyes were just a bit too close together. “Look,” he said, “this is going to take all day if you don’t accept a few things.” He pulled a bowler hat from thin air and placed it on his head. “My name is Sam, I know what’s going on up there,” he reached across the room and tapped my forehead, “and I’m here to help. Can we role with that?”

The whole situation left me a bit dumbfounded, but something about this new form was comforting to me. It was as though I had known Sam for years.

“Fine. What do you have in mind?”

Sam grinned. “Try it!”

“Try what?”

“The Charlie Charlie Challenge.”

I scoffed. “You’re joking, right?”

Sam’s face was resolute. “Look, you know the internet is full of lies. What makes you think this one is anything different? They couldn’t get it to work on the show. Maybe it’s all just a hoax or a bunch of flukes. You’ll never know until you try!”

I considered his point for a while before giving air to the tiny spark of fear glimmering at the back of my mind. “What if it’s true?”

Sam was ready for this. “You don’t have to go through the whole ritual. You know full well that most demonology information suggests a very specific set of rituals for summoning any demon. If you assume that Charlie is real and can be summoned, doing part of the ritual wouldn’t summon him which would let you isolate your variables.”

I began to catch on. “You’re saying just set up the pencils and see what happens.”

Sam smiled. “You’ve got a whole jar of them right next to you.”

No further convincing was needed. I picked up two pencils and began to lay them as directed. It didn’t take long, however, before I ran into the same problem they had had on the show when they tried it: I couldn’t get the pencils to balance. I thought maybe it was something about the pencils, so I went online to see if I was setting them up correctly.

The videos were shocking. People would ask the question and the pencils would move. I did notice, however, that the pencils they were using in all of the videos were the more traditional octagonal pencils. Mine were round. I tried stabilizing the bottom pencil, thinking that might be the problem, by taping it down. When I finally managed to get the pencils balanced, nothing happened.

“You see?” I said. “There’s got to be something more.”

Sam looked at the motionless pencils. “Your variables aren’t isolated. You took away the bottom pencil’s ability to move. That could easily make a big difference.”

I pondered the pencils. “That’s true. But I don’t have any of the right kind of pencil.”

“Then see what the experts have to say.”

I nodded and returned to Google to see what it had to say.

Virtually every sight I went to that discussed the Challenge offered the same explanation: the pencils, as delicately balanced as they are, are very susceptible to subtle changes in the air such as breezes or light breaths. I looked back as my still motionless set up and decided that must be the reason mine didn’t work: I had taken away some of the delicacy by taping down the bottom one.

There were also, however, a couple of articles about the dangers of demon summoning.

I turned back to Sam, mouse hovering over the headline to just such an article. “What do you think?”

“I think that article can’t possible say anything you aren’t already considering.”

I sighed, “I hope you’re right,” and I clicked on the article.

The article started by discussing the basics of the challenge (I merely skimmed this part), then went on to discuss some people experiencing weird things if they did not end the game with Charlie such as Siri malfunctioning. The article pointed to a couple of preachers who warned of the dangers of summoning demons under any circumstances and then went on to discuss what heightened feelings of fear and paranoia can do to your perceptions.

That was enough for me.

It wasn’t enough for Sam.

“There’s a way you could find out for sure,” he said, his face snapping instantaneously to its darker form and back.

“Fuck you, Sam,” I said as a sense of fear rushed into my heart.

“Come on. You don’t even believe in demons, right?”

I clenched my jaw.

“You’ve said dozens of times before,” he pressed on, “that when most people talk about demons, it’s one of two things: a scapegoat to avoid responsibility for their actions or a misunderstanding of mental illness. You aren’t avoiding responsibility and Trunchbull is the only mental illness you’re dealing with.” The use of that name through me off. Perhaps Sam really could read my mind. “If demons aren’t real, what’ve you got to lose?”

“Ok,” I said skeptically, “but what if they are? Is it really worth that risk?”

“Why don’t you see what you can find out?”

Back to Google.

I tried to see what Lutheran theology had to say about demons, but found myself lost for a solid hour reading articles about the lies of Lutheran theology and how all Lutherans are going to hell. The articles, for the sake of accuracy, were all by the same highly fundamentalist man who seemed to have problems understanding the concept of metaphors and was inherently opposed to rituals of any kind. One article tried to argue that Martin Luther consorted with the devil by discussing an encounter between the two that Martin Luther wrote about. I read Luther’s account and laughed.

“Seriously, do people not understand the concept of metaphor or literary devices?”

Sam grinned from ear to ear, turned into a giant white whale, a red letter A, a snake coiled around a tree and back to the bald man in the bowler hat. “Sure doesn’t seem like it.”

I tried to get back to the task at hand of researching Lutheran theology on demons and was met with an excerpt from a Lutheran pastor’s handbook discussing exorcism. That was when I noticed Sam leaning over my shoulder. “Hmmm,” he said. “Didn’t the year-round staff at camp say that they had had the place exorcised?”

The memories flooded back to me: the ghost stories, the spiritualists, the pastors, and particularly the staff pastor. She had said that ghosts and demonic possession weren’t contrary to Lutheran theology. “That means demons are a part of Lutheran theology. Doesn’t it?”

Sam shrugged. “Or at the very least that they might be real.”

I eyed the pencils that still lay motionless on my desk, the bottom one still taped down. I glanced between them and the piece of paper lying next to them and Sam.

“Do it,” Sam whispered. “Just do it.”

“I don’t . . . I can’t . . . but I . . .”

“Do it.”

“No.”

“No?”

“No.” My mind was made up. “Let’s consider the possibilities. Suppose Charlie isn’t real and I try it. There are two outcomes: something happens and I’m left wondering whether Charlie is real or nothing happens and I’m no closer to a real answer than I am now. That’s two cases that don’t actually get me any closer to an answer.

“Now suppose Charlie is real and I try it. There are two outcomes here: either it works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, I’m in the same situation as if Charlie wasn’t real. If it does work, there are two more possible outcomes: Charlie answers my silly questions and then leaves me alone or Charlie decides that either I offended him or that he likes me and he refuses to leave me alone. Perhaps he even gets some of his more malignant demon friends in on the game.

“That’s five outcomes I’ve come up with. Two leave me no closer to an answer than I am now. Two put a check in the Charlie’s real column but don’t actually confirm anything. The fifth puts me at severe risk both physically and spiritually. That means I have an eighty percent chance of getting no answers and a twenty percent chance of getting an answer that I really would rather not hear.”

Sam sat back in his chair and seemed to shrink a bit. “So then you have your answer.”

I glanced back at the pencils. “I guess I do. At least with regards to Charlie.”

“But?”

“But I’m still not sold on demons. Are they real or aren’t they?”

Sam smiled and stood. “I can’t help you anymore there. You’ll have to talk to someone else about that.” Sam walked to the door and paused briefly to turn back. “I’ll be back when you need me.” And he walked out of the building.

I glanced out the window to see if he had arrived by car or walked. Sam, however, was nowhere to be seen. The only sign of life was the small dog chasing the local family of stray cats across the front lawn.

I turned back to the pencils, still motionless.

I blew softly.

The pencil turned.

I laughed and went back to work.

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