The breakpoint was never the end of a session; it was the weakest that the demon would ever be in its interactions with humanity; and it was the opportunity for prayers to attack with the greatest power. Sometimes, there would be a final clash, as the demon would try to negotiate and fight its way out of the promise to leave. In other cases, the possession would begin again if anyone – including the victim – lost the merest amount of hope and reopened the gates. But in most cases, the clash was imminent, and it almost always led to a final expulsion.
The hours before dawn, after the breakpoint, were long and fanged with screams. The demon would leave, it said; the girl would vomit it out, at first light. Its exit dragged through even more prayers, and screeches, and bats and wolves and dogs that all seemed to be baying and howling in the walls.
Landon and Bradley watched the proceedings with eyes trained to recognize the signs of expulsion; but beyond the classificatory schemes that they could almost naturally derive from observation, they could see and sense nothing further. They knew when to disconnect their streaming link, and when to change the batteries on their recorders. They knew what prayers would work, what the demons laughed at, what the demons could mouth back in a hundred languages both living and dead. But to know how the world of the soul linked with the world of the invisible – they needed a direction, and they would not find it here.
When the sky lost its stars, and when the first breath of sunrise broke through the trees and crept across the living room walls, the girl moaned low, bent forward and fell to her fours on the floor. There, she retched a rain of black tar, thick, almost choking her, mingling with her sobs.
And it was over.
She wept, as she came to, and as her mother rushed forward and embraced her. The puddle of black tar disappeared as quickly as it had come.
The doctor examined her, his own hands shaking with both fear and exhaustion, his body bent and slouched from hours of constantly checking on his patient.
She seemed to be his true patient, this girl, as she lost her pallor, regained her blush ever so slowly, breathed, blinked. She was human again.
The exorcist continued to pray, this time whispering, never removing the crucifix from the girl’s head. He waited for her to lean against her mother, to calm, to melt into the woman’s arms. He waited until the doctor stepped away before he addressed her.
“Child,” he laid the crucifix against her forehead as she looked at him, “I know that you are tired, and I know that all you want to do is rest, but I need you to do something for me.”
The girl nodded, swallowing tears.
“I need you to repeat some words after me, loud and clear. Can you do that for me?”
She nodded again, face pale but slowly gaining color in the rosy dawn light.
“We will pray together,” the priest began, “Repeat these words: I love you, Jesus.”
The girl smiled, and her voice cracked as she spoke, “I love you, Jesus.”
“I offer my life and heart to you.”
“I offer my life and heart to you.”
“In complete surrender.”
“In complete surrender.”
The words were whole and full, and every word rang like gentle clanging bells in the growing light. When she finished praying, Fr. Callahan laid his hands over her and her mother; the priest who had watched over her and prepared to restrain her now relaxed, and he moved to the kitchen, where the phone was, to call the child’s father; another priest picked up his mobile phone and stepped out to call the psychiatrist; and the third priest called their bishop. Landon and Bradley, for their part, made for the backyard to shut off their streaming channel and talk to Fr. Anthony.
It had been almost six hours of recording and prayer. The boys could hear the clatter of silverware in Fr. Anthony’s office in Rome, almost smelled what they guessed were hearty plates of newly cooked pasta. Bradley sat on a lawn chair as Landon paced the yard, neither of them paying attention to their rumbling stomachs, neither of them admitting that they cared more about falling into bed and never getting up again than they did about going to another session.
“It’s a relief, to say the least,” the boys heard one of the priests say, “They need to rest.”
One of the priests answered something in Italian. Bradley looked at his brother for a translation; the latter shook his head, mouthing, “Subjunctive.” It was one of the language moods that Landon had given up learning when he was in college. He knew the basics, but lost any translation abilities when the language went far too fast at a time when he was far too tired.
“Boys, I think we’ve had enough for a day – or a lifetime, if your silence is any indication,” they heard Fr. Anthony say, above the sound of equipment beeping and whirring. The boys knew that the priests were using their laptops and updating files; neither of them cared to reply to Fr. Anthony.
“It’s been a long few years,” Fr. Anthony went on, voice smooth and soothing, “And – we were talking about this, his Holiness and I, this afternoon. We know how difficult the job is and how we have to move forward. I suggest you both take a long break – a month, maybe?”
The priest paused, as discussions rang in the background. Had they been given the order at any other time, the brothers would have given each other high fives and run back to the hotel for a shower and a celebratory dinner. At that moment, however, after months of travel across the country, of nights spent in the company of priests and evil, they could think of almost nothing, feel almost nothing. The drain and emptiness were common after every session, but this time, they suddenly felt as though they had had enough.
“Take a break,” they awakened out of their ruminations as the sound of Fr. Anthony’s voice broke once again through the morning, “Rest and get your energy back. I don’t want either of you to be exploited. No one should be a weak link anywhere.”
“What about the Philippines?” Landon spoke up, more curious than excited.
Fr. Anthony sighed, “We’re trying to get a research team assembled,” he began, voice dropping, more exhausted, “But most of the priests there are busy. And the exorcists are busier, if you can believe it.”
“I meant as a vacation,” Landon took the liberty of correcting the priest.
Fr. Anthony was quiet for a while. Whether he was offended by Landon’s suggestion, or ruminating on how to get the boys to their vacation of choice, the brothers did not know, much less care. They could sense only a lingering, biting emptiness, deep within an inner somewhere that words and well wishing could not reach.
“We can arrange that,” they heard another priest speak up.
“They need to rest for now,” Fr. Anthony insisted, “Let’s worry about their bigger vacation as soon as they get right and proper sleep.”
The brothers could say nothing to the suggestion. They jumped slightly as the sound of a ringing telephone broke through the static of the phone call. It was old and shrill, and matched by a loud, “Pronto?” from the priest that picked it up.
“I’ll call you as soon as we hear anything,” Fr. Anthony went on, “But the Vatican will take care of your meals and apartment rental. Same spot in D.C. Drive yourselves there and rest.”
“Can we just shuttle funds from the apartment and get a plane ticket to the Philippines? I can rest better on the beach.” Bradley let out something between a whine and a snort, prompting Landon to laugh, sit beside him, and nudge his brother to keep quiet.
Fr. Anthony laughed, low, as a conversation in rapid Italian filled the background, “Your uncle was not exaggerating when he said that you would pester me like drunken gadflies,” and, as the noise around him faded, “I’ll see what I can do, but no promises.”
Landon nudged Bradley one more time, as the latter began to chant, “Beach! Beach! Beach!” under his breath.
“We’ll do our best,” Landon answered, “We just need to close up shop here.”
“And drive to D.C. after a night’s rest,” Fr. Anthony added for him, “Both of you go home and sleep.”
“Mai tais by the beach!” Bradley was slowly recovering his wisecracking self.
“I’d avoid drinking tonight,” Fr. Anthony’s voice was flat, devoid of any amusement. Bradley decided not to add anything more.
Landon was about to say something, when the back door of the house opened. One of the priests nodded to the brothers, his face grave, his tone terse.
“We need you both,” was all the boys heard as the door closed.
“Talk to me tomorrow,” Fr. Anthony said, firmly, as though shutting down any possible negotiation on when and where the brothers’ vacation would be, “Get yourselves to D.C. and call me when you get to the apartment. We’ll ask the group at Georgetown to get the place ready.”
The boys thanked him in chorus and returned to the house. What they found seemed to brighten the still gray world without: the father had returned, and was embracing his wife and daughter at the dinner table as he sobbed; Fr. Callahan and the doctor were standing by, waiting for the family to calm down so that they could give instructions on what to do next; and all the priests were sitting at the dining table, heads to their rosaries, silent. The brothers could not understand where the seriousness was coming from.
The exorcist motioned for the brothers to take their seats.
“I’ve already turned the family over to their parish priest,” he began, voice cracking, as though the last few hours had drawn all the strength out of him, “It’s your turn now.”
The boys sat down, but looked at each other, brows furrowed.
“It’s all right,” Landon said, “We’ll wait until Dr. Brown comes in.”
“I’m afraid Dr. Brown can’t join us,” the doctor answered almost too abruptly, “He had a heart attack last night on the way home.”
It was not unheard of, for anyone on the team to get sick, fall into a long illness, or come face to face with their mortality. Bradley would get a fever and be coughing for days whenever he became the target. Landon would get migraines that felt as though his skull were being splintered into a million pieces. The priests would vomit, the doctors would get swollen joints and be unable to walk, and the psychiatrists would sleep for days in a strange, silent coma. These were not so much retaliatory attacks as they were the lasting effects of the war between good and evil. Any war would draw out energy and cripple anyone in its wake; their war took out immune systems and, for those who had little experience and no sense of dread or hope, the will to live. A psychiatrist from one of their Midwest sessions, for example, was on the verge of cutting his wrists open had one of the priests not recognized the signs of a coming suicide attempt and barged into the man’s room.
The heart attack, however, was perhaps the greatest, most extreme blow of all. Dr. Brown was in his early 50s, a husband and father, a respected and gentle therapist, and a researcher at the nearby university. He had coordinated with exorcists in the past; he had a whole group assembled for therapy for victims, and he knew how to talk to them with the air of a soft-spoken grandparent who had not a whit of judgement. There was no reason for him to be targeted, but there it was, and there they were, a team short of one member.
“We called his assistant,” Fr. Callahan added, voice cracking above the sobs that came from the family, “He has all the files and he’s updated, but we’ll have to find another psychiatrist to talk to the family. You can go ahead.”
The boys were still reeling from the expulsion and deliverance, and the news about Dr. Brown. They both had to take long breaths, as the exorcist asked the family to listen, and as the girl looked straight at the brothers. They barely recognized her from the week before, the sixteen year old whose jaw had been forced open, whose back had nearly folded upon itself, whose hair had been coated with ash and sweat and blood. She seemed at peace now, less beast, more and more human.
She was like the few others who were lucky to have been delivered, and so unlike the many that were still waiting in the dark worlds between worlds.
She looked back at the brothers, and found two young men, nearing their thirties, with golden hair that sparkled in the morning light. They would have picked up girls easily: their accents were softly British, with the tone of boys educated in private schools who knew how to roam the high streets with their silks and soft Egyptian cotton. Their faces were almost alike, both angular with just a touch of boyish softness where their jawlines met their chins. They both had clear bluish-greenish eyes, the kind that would appear truly gentle when they were gentle, and truly icy when they spoke from the depths of rage.
Bradley went first.
“Thank you very much for allowing us to work with you and your family,” his mouth curved up into the slightest of smiles, at the girl, then at each parent, “Thank you for allowing us to record the sessions. When we first met you, my brother and I promised that we would only record and send your recordings to the Vatican, and that none of the recordings would be used for any purpose other than this project. We will keep that promise.”
“The recordings are stored in the Vatican libraries and can be accessed only by the chief exorcists,” Landon continued for his brother, when Bradley’s voice seemed to shake, “They will monitor you and talk to your bishop from time to time, but they will never get in touch with you unless you give them written permission to do so. They will, however, advise your bishop and local exorcist on how to deal with any resurgences, if they ever occur.”
The girl began to cry once again, and hid her face in her father’s shoulder.
“I know you’re frightened,” Bradley spoke up, voice gaining roundness, in the same way that it did when he and Landon gave their final word to parents at the end of the deliverance session. He would always hold down the shaking in his tone, as though forcibly keeping back memories of the black sea, the sails made of flesh and nails, the waves that swallowed the stars. Then, he would bring in the strength of reassurance, the gentleness of experience, even a touch of his growing faith.
“I know you’re frightened,” he repeated, as the girl finally looked at him, eyes blurred with tears, “I know that you’ve just gotten out of the darkness, and you don’t ever want to go back. I know what it’s like. I’ve been there myself. I’ve gotten out, and I’ve stayed out.”
The girl’s mouth opened in amazement.
“That’s why I’m a part of this project,” Bradley went on, locking eyes with her, “This is a project of the Vatican, and it’s been going on for years now. The Vatican is studying exorcisms, infestation, obsession – and possession.”
Bradley had no time to explain the terms, but he knew, from the interviews with the family, that they had experienced all three phenomena. The daughter had been oppressed by thoughts of suicide, by nightmares that haunted her every hour. The house had been infested with invisible rats and bats. The daughter had been possessed by thousands of demons that had been driven out but hours before.
“They need to study all this,” Bradley went on, “Because they haven’t paid it enough attention, the way that we sometimes don’t like reading about dead writers or wars that are long over. The church thought it was old and outdated, and something that they could study on their free time. But they were wrong.”
The girl swallowed down a sob, as her eyes gained clarity, and as her nod became one of agreement rather than mere acknowledgment.
“The church recognized that it needed to bring back exorcism as a ministry,” Bradley went on, voice now firm, eyes taking on the warm light of the morning, “But to do so, it needed to learn what exactly it was fighting. So the Vatican started a course on exorcism, to teach priests how to spot the signs, who to work with, how to take care of people, how to deal with everything you’ve dealt with. But they saw that they still needed to learn more because everything they taught always seemed to be incomplete.”
“We’ve been traveling across your country, and in some countries for years now,” Landon added, so that the girl turned to him, “We’ve learned so much, and we want to thank you, and your parents for helping us, and for helping the church. But there are still so many cases left, and we keep finding out new things, and how our old assumptions don’t seem to hold anymore. The Vatican will store your files and they will keep studying your case, and they will keep offering the course as they keep learning, and they will keep adding to their classes because even if there have been cases for centuries, we’re looking at them closely only now.”
“You’re a part of this project – you and your family,” Bradley’s smile was warmer, and he felt the air in the room push out the remaining frost from the session, “And you have a lot of work ahead of you. You have to listen to your parish priest, and you always have to check in with your local church just in case you move. I know it’s a lot of work, but it’s something I do too, and I find that it keeps me – it makes me feel safe.”
Landon cleared his throat.
“That, and a lot of prayers,” Bradley added at once, as the priests at the table looked at him, waiting.
Fr. Callahan nodded once, solemn, as Bradley withdrew into his chair.
“Let’s talk about the sacraments,” the priest began, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a brown notebook. Bradley could not help letting out a sigh, as he remembered the black book from the night before.
The boys remained quiet, as the exorcist gave his instructions, as the parents and the girl listened with low sobs, and as one of the priests stepped out to answer his phone. The girl’s hair was matted with tears, but it no longer had the ash and grey that coated it in the weeks the brothers had filmed her. Her cheeks were losing their pallor, her lips were no longer dull with purple blood, and her skin lost the iridescent sheen that seemed to mark her as a bastard beast of dragon and snake. When she spoke, her voice was rounded and strong, as though she had never screamed for hours, as though she had never mouthed obscenities and curses with a groan that belonged to creatures as old as the earth itself.
And she was obedient, listening, humbled. The sessions sometimes created monsters out of those who disobeyed the invitation to return to their faith: some fell back on their old habits, or learned new ones that were almost as wicked, and returned to the worlds illuminated by darkness. The boys always took it upon themselves to remind the delivered that they were lucky, one of the very few, in a mass of thousands who sometimes waited for decades. Very rarely were victims so immediately obedient and willing to listen; even Bradley was working on his humility, and his brother loved to tease him, if only to lighten the load of their task.
The need for obedience was something that every single person on the team shared, from the exorcist who waited for his bishop’s approval for the sessions to proceed, to the priests who waited for the lead exorcist’s orders, to the brothers who moved where the Vatican told them to. Their uncle hesitated to call it “submission”; rather, he named it “loving childlikeness,” the way a child would listen to his parents and wait for their guidance.
The priest who had stepped outside entered once more, and took a seat next to Landon.
“I think you both need to talk to Dr. Brown,” he spoke, very low, as the exorcist answered questions from the girl’s parents, “He wants to see you.”