The brothers left as soon as the exorcist signaled that he would hear the family’s confessions. It was standard for the boys to stay and have their own confessions heard, a ritual that served to shut the doors, as it were, on their own fears and sins, or anything that the demon might have brought to light.
“I can tell the Georgetown team to get you a priest to hear your confession tonight, if that’s not too late,” Fr. Callahan told Landon, as the family talked amongst themselves.
Landon could not help listening to the father’s story, as the latter spoke about what he had gone through as he crossed state lines. He had been pursued by a flock of black, cawing, snarling birds, which seemed to follow him all the way to the hospital. When he arrived, he was told that no one had called him; but yes, his son was awake, so would he like to call his wife? He had wanted to, except he could not find his phone; and when he used the hospital phone, had spent a good half hour listening to static, unending rings, and an answering machine that (wrongly) kept on claiming that it was full. When he stepped out to attempt to drive back home, he could not see a foot in front of him, and heard only birds and bats roaring from the shadows.
He and his son had spent the early morning hours praying. He had driven back into a calm Boston, into a city alight with the dawn, into a house that felt the lightest, the happiest in years.
Landon stopped at the front door, mid-stride. He kept his eyes on the family, marking the girl’s golden hair, her soft nose that seemed to belong to neither of her parents, the gentleness that seemed to issue so readily from her father.
“Is it really over?” He found himself asking aloud.
The exorcist did not follow Landon’s gaze. He simply stood next to the boy, on the house’s front stoop, occasionally making way for the priests who went in and out of the house, bearing boxes and books. Landon seemed to stand in a whole other world, as though the deliverance were too soon, if not unexpected.
“Nothing is ever really over,” Fr. Callahan replied, “Your brother can attest to that.”
Landon watched Bradley, who was preoccupied with checking all the contents of their bags. The boy had an inventory in one hand and a pen in the other, and he was counting recorders, tapes, cameras, and notebooks, all with the air of someone who had never seen evil. Landon could sense the little details, however, that pedestrian eyes would miss: the momentary, faraway look when the boy had to rest, the slight slump in one shoulder, the frequent taps on the clipboard his fingers made when he tried to reconcile the numbers of recorders with the inventory of supplies. No one would think of checking in on a boy who seemed so happy doing what he did. No one would think that this young man had rushed his growing up, from a little boy playing in the park, to a soul that had endured pain too deep to be described in human words.
“Go ahead. We can handle this,” the exorcist spoke up, “Dr. Brown needs you.”
Landon dragged his feet to the car, felt his own shoulders sag, felt his hands grow heavy, as though his entire body were protesting against leaving the priests, as though his own soul were chaining his legs with holds of metal that could be mined in worlds that only the angels could see.
And then he remembered the power that the monsters of darkness wielded, with their weapons whose damage lasted decades, and their wars that knew neither time nor space. Landon straightened his back at the mere prospect of being enslaved to these so-called angels.
He opened the car doors and sat in the driver’s seat, just as Fr. Callahan nodded to him from the front door, as Bradley finished with his inventory, and as one of the priests finished with another conversation on his phone and waved to the brothers to wait for him.
“Fr. Anthony just called from Rome. He said you weren’t picking up?” The priest’s tone was both alarmed and exasperated, “He told me to tell you that the apartments at Georgetown are ready. He just needs you to call him when you get there.”
The boys checked their phones immediately. There were no registered calls or text messages, only signs of fully charged batteries and strong cellular signals to mock them. Of course there would be games until the very end; no self respecting demon would be caught empty handed when it came to accounting on who did the most mischief.
The brothers thanked the priest, then drove to the hospital. They usually left right after a deliverance, and were on call for the next few days just in case they needed to document anything or relay messages to Fr. Anthony’s office in Rome.
This deliverance was different: it had been the most draining finish, the closest to sunrise, the farthest from sleep, the least eventful, but the most damaging.
They were silent on the drive to the hospital. Landon maneuvered through the near-empty Boston streets, one hand on the wheel, the other rubbing his eyes if only to keep sleep at bay. Bradley closed his eyes, but sleep was too far off; at length, he took to staring out the window, quiet, as the traffic thickened, as the world came to life in the footsteps and coffee cups of the city, as the crowds and conversations and chirruping grew all around them.
After every deliverance came the light, the prayers promised. The promises were not too easy to believe, however, when the deliverance came after weeks of draining waiting, or when the deliverance came too easily, so that one had to doubt its truth. The promises were even harder to believe on mornings like this, when the entire world seemed to be going its merry way so normally, so oblivious to the dangers that lurked in corners brightened with the darkness of human frailty.
The brothers doubted the promise of light when they finally saw the psychiatrist. Dr. Brown, the once gentle professor who looked as though he had been born a grandfather, the once soothing man who appeared as though he knew only the good and the beautiful – Dr. Brown was gray, tired, almost sallow. He lay in bed with a smile that nevertheless sparkled, his wife’s hand in his, his other hand holding a notebook open.
When the boys came, he greeted them with a low voice that sounded as though it had been scraped over pebbles. He probably had never been so sick, so weakened in his life; his body knew nothing about warding off attacks that came from places that scholars like him had been taught to dismiss as mere imagination.
“I heard the good news,” the gentleness nevertheless worked its way through Dr. Brown’s yellowed countenance, “How is she?”
Bradley sat on the nearest stool. Mrs. Brown smiled at him, with warmth that reminded him of his own mother, God rest her soul. There was anger, however, in the tiny twitch of her lip. What woman, indeed, would not be enraged by an injury to her husband, born out of the man’s love for his field and his compassion for those who suffered?
“She’s recovering,” Landon began, standing at the foot of the bed, “She had a good deliverance at dawn. It was a rough night.”
“I’d say,” the psychiatrist mused, with a low laugh that gurgled in his throat.
“Not that we’re discounting what you went through,” Bradley added immediately, so that Mrs. Brown’s smile warmed, “The priests are talking to her now. They’ll take the whole morning, from the looks of it.”
“No surprises there,” Dr. Brown said, a little less cordial than usual, “That’s why I needed to talk to you boys. I don’t want the theological explanation. I need your experience. And my wife loves British accents, so you’re here for good reason.”
Mrs. Brown laughed, pressed his hand, then turned away for a moment to wipe her cheek.
Landon and Bradley glanced at each other, not quite sure what to make of the man’s words. Most psychiatrists had simply walked away after a case, or had chatted about the weather, or had joked about how movies never captured the terror that they went through. Then again, none of the psychiatrists had been hit this hard prior to a deliverance.
Dr. Brown did not wait for the boys to tell him to keep talking. His voice crackled into the silence.
“We’ve been on this case for weeks now,” he pushed his notebook toward Landon, which the latter took, “And I’ve had the chance to observe the girl. I’ve never had to deal with a case like hers. She’s worse than the rest, but her story – it’s not as bad. She didn’t cast spells, call on Satan, order demons around, usual suspects. None of this was in her control. She was the victim. Took in everything. Absorbed everything.”
“Perhaps that’s why she suffered the most,” Bradley spoke up, tempted to tell Dr. Brown about the Italian cases he had to study, where curses abounded, “She had no idea what she fought against, so she couldn’t match strength with strength.”
“Maybe,” the psychiatrist’s old scholarly tone returned, still crackling beneath the gravel and stones in his voice, “But you also have to remember that this is a devout Catholic family. I know they kept their secret, but she knows prayers, the sacraments, the possibility of possession, even if the idea has been filtered through horror films. She could have matched, as you said, strength with strength. I’ve never seen it before. And that is why I asked you here: have you seen it before? This helplessness, this despair?”
Bradley had seen it in himself, but he had also grown up with hardly any religion in his house; his family had gone to mass and performed the rituals the way that they had been taught, but there was no conversation on matters of faith in their household. They would talk of school, he remembered, and ships, and games; Sunday was mass, and the week was real life. Everything changed after his exorcism, but it had likewise taken years to undo the pitfalls of what was close to a decade of lukewarm faith.
“I can’t say,” Bradley spoke up, after the memories played in his head, “We’ve seen lots of cases. I still can’t see the pattern.”
“And that is what makes me uneasy,” Dr. Brown pointed at the notebook in Landon’s hands, “I’ve taken notes of our conversations, and our interviews with her. I can’t see a pattern either, but I know there should be one. There has to be one. I’ve even thrown statistics at the text, and still no luck!”
“Oh please, no!” Bradley raised both palms, “No maths!”
“Lucky for you, statistics is not math,” Mrs. Brown finally spoke up, “I’m a statistician.”
Bradley could only manage a grin. He hated research in general. He could read for hours, collect data, even proofread. The whole research process was something reserved for someone far more patient than he. Far more adept, Landon would sometimes tease him.
“I’ve tried, if you must know,” Mrs. Brown continued, “All those little notations are mine. I tried everything in the book, but I see nothing big, nothing pronounced, nothing glaring. Just anger and resentment; but who knows who’s really talking, and when?”
Landon went through the pages of Dr. Brown’s notebook, and found checks, tallies, and letter codes, written next to words that had been highlighted, underlined, or labeled with question marks. The girl had mentioned, and quite often, that she wished she had a real family, a true father and true mother, and a good night’s sleep. And then she spoke about her nightmares, of being in a kitchen, on the floor, with something dark and shadowy standing over her with a bottle that burned black.
Landon knew that Dr. Brown had not confided in his wife about the girl’s confession, and he would never do so. But Mrs. Brown’s questions were timeless and applicable to any case. What was the girl’s mental state when she was interviewed? What was her emotional state? And who was really talking?
“I don’t know how else to analyze that data,” Dr. Brown said, sighing, “William tried, my grad students tried. I’ve even taken it to the linguists. You remember Graystone, dear?”
“Edgar?” His wife asked, although not as warmly, “Of course. He’d do well not to look down on statistics.”
Bradley could not help chuckling. It was the old qualitative vs. quantitative debate playing out. He had heard as much when he was at university, but the analysis didn’t interest him. If anything, he felt lost when research was discussed, even annoyed when the conversation became about the nuances of methods rather than the implications of findings. He looked over at Landon and found his brother still riffling through pages blackened by hastily written notes.
“The linguists have given up,” the psychiatrist gestured toward the notebook, “and my statistician has quit. Lucky that you’re both part of a bigger research project. Unlimited funding? Lots of analysts?”
“Not quite – no one wants to try either,” Bradley put in, when Landon seemed too engrossed in the notebook to even look up from it, “We’re off to the Philippines next. Maybe we’ll get someone there.”
“Let’s hope that you do,” Dr. Brown’s smile was mild, “When I first got into this, I thought, and honestly, that we would just see a whole lot of people in hysterics, or anxiety attacks gone haywire, or manic depression, D.I.D. – I didn’t think this would happen, and not on this scale.”
“The Philippines is beautiful,” Mrs. Brown spoke up, hand still grasping her husband’s, “I was there years ago for a conference. I went back for a vacation, too. Churches on every corner, and a long history of Catholicism. You’d think they’d be the last place for something like this.”
“Actually,” Landon finally entered the conversation, but without looking up from the notebook, “We’ve found that it’s precisely those places that are the best targets for possession. The religion isn’t a shield; it’s an invitation.”
“Or more precisely,” Bradley had to add, as he felt dark, chilly water threaten to swallow him whole, “It’s places of folk religiosity – where people pick and choose beliefs to fit into their faith. But that’s just one factor – it doesn’t apply to the US, so we still haven’t found a pattern.”
Dr. Brown sighed, suddenly appearing even grayer, more tired than before. He looked up at his wife, who looked down at him and gave his hand a press between hers. They shared a look that appeared to be a mix of resignation and encouragement; a look that, framed by a backdrop of wires and monitors, seemed all the more poignant.
“I think I’ll rest for a long while after this,” Dr. Brown said, softly, as his wife smoothed the hair free from his forehead, “Take the notebook with you, boys. I don’t know how it can help your project, but it certainly won’t help me. Go on; take it.”
Landon closed the notebook at once, as though dreading any kind of dealings with anything that could one day be a plaything for demons. He was already handing it back to the psychiatrist, when the door opened.
“It’s William!” Mrs. Brown said, “Oh the poor boy must be hungry!”
“And he is, like any good post doc,” the voice from the door might have been joking, but it felt weary, at least according to the two brothers by the bed.
They had met a lot of Dr. Brown’s students, but this one was the most often mentioned and never met with. William was the one in charge of reviewing transcripts and being the objective voice of reason far removed from the possession proceedings. Judging from how much work was often handed to him, and judging from how he had also given up on analyzing the transcripts, it was no surprise that he sounded so worn out, tired, pulled free from all happiness.
“Sorry to interrupt,” William finally entered with bags in each hand. He placed one on the room’s dresser, and gave another to Mrs. Brown, who had come forward to help him, “Special delivery of fresh fruit and yogurt for our patient, and fish and chips for Mrs. Brown and company.”
The brothers looked at each other quickly, forgetting the last few weeks, and hearing only the call of food. They didn’t remember eating dinner or breakfast, as was usual with all their cases. No one had any appetite for any kind of food during the sessions, and often after; demons took all manner of human enjoyment with them when they played with human souls.
Today, however, seemed an exception: the mere mention of fish and chips was enough for the boys to forget that they had not had an ounce of sleep in over a day, and had been witness to a battle that had ended with sunrise and tears.
“On any other day, I would have said chuck the yogurt,” Dr. Brown spoke up from his bed and reached out with one hand, “But today, I need good food and rest, or I won’t be around long enough to tell the grandkids how their grandpa once went to war with demons.”
William smiled and handed the man a banana, then an open cup of yogurt and a spoon, all of which Dr. Brown took with an air of exasperation.
“You’re a good boy, William Lambskeep,” Dr. Brown raised the cup to his post doc, as though in a toast, “I’ll miss you.”
The brothers finally had the chance to examine the post doc, as Dr. Brown ate the banana, and as Mrs. Brown and William unpacked the fish and chips together and handed them out. He was as tall as the brothers, but he seemed darker, both in mien and in skin: his eyes had the slant of the Far East, but his angular cheekbones and chiseled jaw betrayed some other lineage,some other race. He was imposing, on first glance, as though challenging anyone to ask why he didn’t like smiling often.
While the brothers were golden blonde, with bright bluish-gray eyes against pink skin, William was dark haired, tanned, but seemingly pale. His face was longer, his eyes quieter but scrutinizing; and his smile, when it did come, lacked in spirit. He was broad in the shoulders, and moved with determination, as though he planned his steps hours in advance. Even the act of handing a cone of fish and chips to Landon, then Bradley, seemed formal.
“They had the deliverance with zero sleep just a few hours ago,” Mrs. Brown told him, as she sat next to her husband and munched on some fish, “These boys deserve a big lunch buffet, but I suppose fish and chips will have to do.”
“And they do very well, thank you,” Bradley said, with a nod to William, then Mrs. Brown, “We didn’t expect this. Let us pay you -”
Mrs. Brown brushed him away with a hand holding fries, “It was my husband’s idea,” she ate her fries, then took Dr. Brown’s banana peel, “Would you like just a little taste, dear?”
Dr. Brown laughed, low, “No appetite. Enjoy it. It’s our thank you,” he looked at Bradley, then in wonderment at Landon, who had taken interest in the notebook again and was reading it while eating his share of the fish and chips, “You made me part of this, and I am thankful, wires and tubes and all.”
Bradley could not help sighing. Anyone who had been through Dr. Brown’s battles, from the work to the analysis, the sessions to the actual heart attack, would be depressed and in despair. He had the strength to still thank the boys for involving him in an endeavor that had nearly cost him his life.
“I don’t know what else to say, but ‘Thank you,'” Landon looked up from the notebook, “No demon can stand up to your kind of joy.”
Bradley opened his mouth, about to say something along the lines of, “Let’s hope we never get the opportunity to test that,” but he was interrupted by an arm extended in his direction.
It was William, “We haven’t been formally introduced,” the hand, Bradley felt, was firm, almost too strong, as though William held things in his fists all the time, “William Lambskeep, Boston College.”
“Bradley Sheffield,” was the boy’s response, so that he forgot to tell Landon not to joke too easily about encounters with demons, “My brother Landon, both from England, both on tour.”
“Just like the Beatles,” Dr. Brown smiled from the bed as Landon and William shook hands, “They’re part of the Vatican group that called you, William.”
Bradley continued to wonder at the formality, which, though affectionate, seemed so unlike the other psychiatrists they had encountered. Those were scholars by day, boisterous dads at night, who treated their equally boisterous students to mugs of beer or glasses of wine. William seemed to be the doting grandchild to a still strong grandfather, who was handling him as though he were a porcelain doll that could easily be shattered by the merest wrongly-placed word.
“The Vatican has been very kind, and quiet,” William never stopped with the grave tone. Bradley listened closely, noted the gold cross on a faded chain hanging from the boy’s neck. William seemed to sense that he was being watched; he took to collecting trash around the room as he spoke, even as Mrs. Brown gestured that he should sit, “I’ve sent them all our files, and they haven’t said anything, so I hope everything’s good.”
“They might be really busy,” Landon did not look up from the notebook, “Our last exorcism was not quite as clear cut as this.”
The last one was in rural New York, miles from any city to which the team could run for help. The victim was a college boy, who liked experimenting with love spells on any woman who took his fancy, and who had to suffer the “blowback” (as one priest, a former soldier, nicknamed it) of two spells: one to quiet down a girl he had dumped, another to bewitch the new girl he had set his eyes on. He had been in and out of a trance, and had been difficult to pin down, quite literally. He scaled walls and ceilings, hissed at anyone who tried to catch him, slithered on the ground when he chanced to find himself on the earth, and vomited chicken bones, as though he had ingested them like a hungry giant snake. There had been no complete deliverance; the family had simply given up and taken to blaming the girls for being “too forward” and “too encouraging”.
The exorcism sessions, however, had been intense, and even more so than their Boston case. Bradley worked for weeks to annotate the videos, marking where certain transformations happened. Landon worked, likewise, at translating the transcripts, which came in a variety of Latin languages all built on dreams and hopes by an even wider variety of demons. Landon had to keep consulting online books for translating subjunctive moods in different languages, which, he once bellowed, irritated him enough to steer clear of any kind of research related to transcripts – and any kind of translations related to subjunctive mood, for that matter.
“Better to move on from that one,” Landon continued, nodding to Dr. Brown in thanks for the notebook, “The Vatican’s probably still cross checking all my translation mistakes.”
William shook his head, “Your work sounds really interesting – I don’t know how you can do so many cases, one after the other.”
“We pray a lot,” Bradley said, finishing the last of his meal.
“And rest a lot,” Landon added, “I can tell you more if we keep in touch.”
“Then make sure you do that, young man,” Dr. Brown put in, so that the room turned to him, “William’s wrapping up work with me as soon as he publishes all his research. You could use his psychology brain. Lord knows how much more of it he has than I do.”
William paled somewhat despite the compliment, and the gentle remonstration by Mrs. Brown on how her husband “certainly had lots of living brain cells still firing away!” Bradley marked the change, and sensed that it had much to do with why William was so formal, to the point of almost being stiff and over cautious. The pallor, however, disappeared beneath William’s soft smile at his mentor.
“I won’t be out of your hair yet, Brownie,” he retorted, so that the patient laughed, then coughed in amusement at his nickname, “The five papers won’t write themselves.”
“Then get to them before you hop off to another green pasture!” was the crisp reply from Dr. Brown, “Five papers, my goodness. Only William Lambskeep can write that much in one year.”
William’s smile graduated every so slightly into a light chuckle that barely stirred the dry air of the room.
“And please have my notes,” Dr. Brown turned to Landon, seemingly accustomed to and unfazed by William’s barebones reactions to jests, “Either find use for it or chuck it in a furnace.”
“Noted,” Landon raised the notebook, “Thank you for this. We’ll take good care of it.”
“That means never giving it back,” Mrs. Brown said, almost fearfully, “We’ve had enough analysis to last us a lifetime.”
Bradley was about to joke how analysis would be too much even for one second of his own lifetime, when another knock came to the door. This time, it was a team of doctors and nurses, all of them bearing clipboards or caddies of laboratory materials. Someone said they smelled food, and it would be dangerous to excite the patient with things that might turn his stomach, or even reverse all the progress they had already made the night before. Someone said the room was too crowded, which prompted Mrs. Brown to quickly give her goodbyes to the boys, and to push them out – as it were – so that the doctors could do another round of tests.
“It’s these tests that turn my stomach!” Was the last thing the brothers and William heard, as they closed the door on Dr. Brown, “Take me with you to the beach!”
Bradley laughed as he took a seat in the hospital hallway. He had already sat in the house, in the car, in Dr. Brown’s room; but for some reason, sitting down at that moment, in the hospital corridor, allowed him to finally realize that the deliverance had been made, and that he could breathe. He leaned back, felt the fish and chips weigh down on his insides, felt his body threaten to melt into the chair.
He tried to stay awake, but all he could remember was a low conversation between his brother and William, something about how William would send Landon more notes on the case, how Landon would pass the notes to the Vatican, how the servers sometimes bogged down with all the files, how William’s life as a graduate student was all about research and less about teaching, how the work that went into writing research articles was not to everyone’s liking, how William had already submitted his papers to different journals, so he could still be on call in case the brothers needed him, and how Landon needed more than a night of sleep to make up for the previous evening’s work.
Everything was both clear as day and muddled as a puddle for Bradley: he felt the chair melt softly into air, and then harden under him; heard the faraway call of nurses and doctors, then something scratching and prowling the walls of the hospital; tasted fish and chips, then salt water. And then there was a conversation on Korea, on the language, and the culture, and it seemed that Landon had made awfully long questions, but William answered in tiny syllables that said that he knew next to nothing of his mother’s country.
There was a sea, once again, but it was pouring out of the walls, lapping against Bradley’s nostrils, threatening to swallow him. And then there was a hallway, and creatures in the roofbeams that liked to scratch the mortar and chitter with glee. They seemed harmless, the cackles and crackles; but something deep within Bradley warned him not to be deceived.
When he came to, Landon was shaking him awake. William had gone, but wished them well, his brother said, as he tried to bring Bradley to his feet.
“And yes, you can sleep in the car,” Landon added, with mock exasperation, “Let your poor brother drive, why don’t you.”
Something nagged at the back of Bradley’s head, snagged at the ends of his fragmented thoughts. When he was finally upright, walking, and more than wide awake, he forgot the water and the creatures and the waves and the gnashing of tiny teeth. He simply followed his brother out, into the afternoon sun.
“The Philippines soon, and the beach in a month, little brother,” Landon said, voice light and airy, “When all that comes, then you can rest as much as you like.”
Bradley shook his head, as though he could still feel the salt water gush into his ears. He had a feeling that there would no longer be any such thing as rest, not in their mortal lives, not in the last bastion of Catholicism in the Far East. Something in his head echoed a voice, one that spoke in his halfway world of dreams and waking, one that whispered of fragile walls and breaking gates, one that trembled against the forces of beings that knew neither space nor time.
He ignored the echoes, and the dreams, even the taste of salt in his mouth. Yes, there could be rest. He needed it before what he felt would be a bigger battle ahead.
What he did not anticipate was a year of rest, as the battle brewed behind gateways unseen by the human eye, and as the gateways barely held fast in the darkness half a world away.