Jumping Jacks

Meave Cunningham
→ BFA Industrial Design & Graphic Design ’23

The mother and her child sat opposite to the therapist, the three of them in corduroy armchairs. The child was screaming but there was no sound coming from her mouth anymore. She had made noise at the beginning, a guttural howling like a dog trying to match the sirens of an ambulance. She started with No! and from there the vowel curdled into a ragged drawn-out cough reverberating through the room. If she was in better spirits or looking in as an outsider, she would have laughed and called it an exorcism: the therapist as the priest and the mother as the mother.

The therapist told the child that she had two options: to have the demon surgically removed, or to willingly aid in the exorcism. The mother insisted on the surgery. She was a strong woman who had exorcized her own demons in the past on her own. She insisted a surgery would be less painful for the child and that it was the only option. Surgery would allow the child to be at peace, even if the demon took part of the child with it. The child dropped out of the armchair and onto the ground, kicking at the mother’s words. The therapist decided that the child wanted to aid in the exorcism.

The child, after all, is a child and cannot make these decisions for herself.

Against the mother’s want, the demon and the child went unwillingly together to exorcize. They were to go to a little yellow house far from the city. It was close enough to home but too far to visit often. The father of the child drove them to the little house with the mother in the passenger seat and the child and demon curled up against each other in the back. The father paid for the child’s treatment, so he drove her there. Nothing was said between the parents on the drive that took hours. Only soft mutterings between the demon and child could be heard over the hum of the truck. Both the demon and the child were crying. The mother worried.

She was the mother and a mother knows her child better than anyone. When did the demon come to her? How did a mother not catch it?

The mother looked back at the child. Her eyes moved across the tiny thing, wrapped in blankets and sweatshirts to keep her from shivering. In just a few weeks the child’s face had become hollow and her skin had turned gray. Little white tufts of hair grew in patches on her thin arms and legs as the hair on her head fell to the floor in clumps. She had stopped talking to people. The child had always been quiet but never like this. She moved in slow motion and spoke nonsense to herself. She barely ate and hissed at the mention of food. When she did eat she would rip her meal apart, scattering the pieces like a dog with a stuffed chew-toy.

What did the demon want?


Once they arrived at the little house, the child, the demon, the mother and the father drew close to each other without touching. The house was yellow and had a small garden in the front with a very tall fence that stretched along the perimeter. They were greeted by a nurse in the driveway. She was a bigger woman with a kind face and colorful arm tattoos that peaked out from her sleeves at the wrists.

Inside, a doctor in a black turtleneck and gray jeans told the mother and the father about the same treatments the therapist had prescribed. The mother was skeptical of the doctor who was not dressed like a doctor, but listened to him anyway.

A mother trusts a doctor because she has no other choice.

The parents nodded, signed some paperwork, and they said goodbye to the child. The mother looked worried and the father looked tired. The child pressed her face to the stained-glass window in the front door of the house as her parents walked back to the gate in the tall fence. She watched as the mother and father drove away in the blue truck, now purple then green and finally warped through the glass and the child’s tears. The child wiped her face and then wiped the demon’s.

She was taken by the doctor to a small room on the first floor. The doctor asked the child her name, birthday and some other questions about medications, behaviors and allergies. The doctor did not ask about the demon. Instead he instructed the child to undress and put on a crisp white medical gown while counting aloud as he waited for her outside the door. When he walked back inside, he took the child’s blood pressure, listened to her heart, and looked into her eyes and ears with a strange instrument. Finally, he asked her to stand in the middle of the room and do ten jumping jacks before stepping backwards onto an old, T-shaped scale. At this request, the child and the demon panicked. But the doctor who didn’t look like a doctor noticed the child’s worry and smiled, assuring her that everything was okay. She would be allowed to rest after this intake session. The child did not trust the doctor who didn’t look like a doctor but she obeyed because she had to.

The parents were gone. They stayed away for months. Each day, when the child was allowed to walk a few paces, she and the demon would press their faces to the glass, waiting for the blue truck to come back and take them both home. The child pictured her mother and father bursting through the doors of the house to rescue her, telling her that they were kept from returning, and that they’d never leave her in a place like this again.

But the parents never came that way. They resumed their roles. The father went back to work, buying and selling things. The mother went back to her house to take care of the other children, the child’s brother, younger sister and identical twin. She would make their meals, take them to school and tuck them into bed at night. She hoped she’d forget about the child and the demon until the day would come with a phone call announcing the child’s successful treatment. The therapist would tell her to bring the child home and resume tucking her in at night as she had done all those years before. But as hard as she tried, the mother could not stop thinking about the child.

At the little yellow house there were other children. They were there for the same treatment, even if their demons looked different from one another. The children all slept in the same room that was decorated like a nursery except for the barred windows and heavy steel doors. When they were in bed, a nurse would come in every fifteen minutes with a flashlight to make sure each was in their own bed, sleeping as they were told. The child could barely sleep at all but pretended to, each time the cold light swept across her face.

She still sees the red insides of her eyelids when she lays in bed at night, all these years later.

In the mornings, the children were made to shower one at a time. One nurse would stand guard at the shower curtain, asking each child to count aloud or sing a song, whatever ensured that the child and their demon were behaving. Another nurse would bring the children to the dining area to have breakfast and take their medication. None of the children would eat. That was their choice. The medication, however, was mandatory.

It took several days for the child and the demon to stop crying. At that point, the child became friends with a girl named Emma. Emma came from a foster family who didn’t know what to do with her anymore. While the children sat in the living room, drawing in coloring books with cap-less blue and black pens, Emma and her demon would chase the nurses, whooping and jumping on the tables. The child liked this about her. She made everyone laugh, except for the nurses. On the mornings that Emma was especially funny, two large men in all white with walkie-talkies would arrive in an ambulance, strap her down to a gurney, and deliver her to a nearby hospital. In the late afternoon, the men would bring her back in a wheelchair, and she would sit by a window with soft eyes and whisper to the fence until it was time to go to bed. The child and the demon thought this was funny too. They liked to sit by the window and try to write down what Emma said to the fence. Sometimes, the child even wanted to whoop and jump like Emma, so she could leave the house, even just for a little while.

On a night after Emma had been taken to the hospital again, the children were put to bed by the large nurse with the arm tattoos. The child asked the nurse where Emma was. The nurse looked shocked for a moment, and tried to cover it with a pained smile.

Emma shouldn’t be coming back here anymore. Emma has the surgery this morning. Her demon was removed.

The child started to cry and the demon shrieked.

Time for bed.

There were other children who came and went just like Emma. The child learned from the other children who stayed the longest how to hide her demon from the nurses and doctors. The child ate when she was told to, took her medications, counted loudly in the shower and on the toilet for the nurses to hear, all the while telling the demon to wait until they were out of this place.

The nurses and the doctor who didn’t look like a doctor took notice of the child’s good behavior and allowed her more privileges. Soon, she was allowed to read books, watch movies and use pens with caps. She could even go on supervised walks outside, beyond the tall fence and she could shower without counting.

After many months, a nurse came to the child who was helping the doctor cut out paper hearts for the other children to make Valentine cards. The doctor let the child hold her own pair of kitchen scissors as they cut together.


After sharing a smile with the nurse, the doctor led the child to the front door of the house. He opened the door to the child’s father who hugged her before turning back to the doctor. They spoke shortly and after signing some paperwork the father led the child to the blue truck.

Good job. Your mother is waiting for you at home.

As they pulled away from the tall fence, the child caught a glimpse of a boy with soft eyes in the window of the house, whispering to the fence from a wheelchair. The child wondered if he would learn how to hide his demon too. She watched the boy until he and the little yellow house shrank into nothing.

The child and the demon remember this boy often in dreams and waking memory, his face forever painted on the reds of her eyelids.

No one said a word as the father drove. The child and the demon sat with a seat between them as the three went home to the mother waiting to tuck the child in at night as she had done all those years before.

Meave is a multidisciplinary artist and designer focusing on stress responses and sculptural wearables.