It was 2016, during the spring that followed a prolonged, icy, biting winter; at a time when the seconds ticked into minutes, and minutes seemed to grow into bedraggled peasants that yapped at the sky and dragged behind them the days that once had been.
The world seemed old, or made ancient, by the year before. There had been elections across the world, in places where people longed for a change to which they could give no name. And those changes came like wolves: loud, rising rampant, baring fangs, calling forth choruses of hatred and mockery at anyone who dared question why such beasts had been allowed to see the light of day.
But so came the beasts, and the changes, and they who welcomed the changes were called enlightened. They had moved forward from evil ways, corruptions, secrets; and those who countered them were labeled with names cursed and unnammeable.
The rage built upon rage, change upon change, anger upon anger.
Case upon case upon new case.
The woman on the bed, that spring of 2016, showed little of the anger that swirled in the world without – but she seemed to be filled with solid, fuming, smoking, ancient rage.
She usually squirmed, even raised her head like a giant snake, whenever certain words were read out to her. Sometimes, she needed no bonds to keep her from hurting herself. Today, however, she had scratched the skin of her back raw; she had nearly clawed out the eyes of her own brother.
That same brother was in the emergency room, hours away in another state, where the doctors could treat him as he lay deep in dreamless sleep. She had hit him with something, everyone thought. Had the woman been fully conscious, she would have told them the entire story.
He had put her tray of food on the table next to her bed. She had awakened. He had smiled. She hated his smile. She sat up, grabbed at his face to rip his lips apart. She missed. He tried to flee. She pushed him.
More precisely, she threw him. Her arms had grown longer, her fingers had grown claws, her new claws had clamped down on his shoulders and thrown him across the room.
He landed on the opposite wall, breaking the mortar, chipping the paint. He bled from wounds in his back and from the spaces between his fractured skull.
And then her eyes went black, and she remembered nothing. If his brain survived the impact, then perhaps he could tell the story in slurs and drones. But today, the only witnesses to the confrontation were the broken walls and shattered glass on the floor.
The band of doctors rushed into the room. Two of them took the boy out into the hallway, and later, sat with him in the ambulance that drove him miles across state lines. The other stayed behind and examined the girl.
Blood pressure normal. Pulse normal. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to show that she had the strength of six grown men and could easily send the doctor to the hospital, on her brother’s heels.
And then she spoke from the depths of the earth, in a hundred voices, in a chorus that made the doctor rush downstairs to get the priests.
When the priests arrived, the morning’s uneaten breakfast was spread across the floor and on smears upon the walls. There was no pattern to the stains, only a stench that reeked of feces and vomit. The priests crossed themselves, eyes to the ground, fingers clutching rosaries, prayers unending even as the girl rumbled and grumbled with groans and sneers.
Behind the priests came the girl’s father, white and pale and trembling against one wall as he watched his daughter lying on the bed. Next to him was the mother, standing as well, her head held high, her lip quavering as she tried to hold her strength against the tide of a broken heart. One child was in a hospital bed, perhaps brain dead; another was in her bedroom, her soul dead to the world.
The priests moved into position. Two stood at the foot of the bed. One each went to either side of the girl, ready to pin her down should she decide to spring up and behead all the people before her.
Outside, the psychiatrist and medical doctor met, discussing the case, waiting to be called in. They were both old, but strong, perhaps even used to the scene before them.
And downstairs, remotely monitoring the room, were two brothers, listening and watching their computers closely as the cameras in the room recorded the priests entering. On another computer played a sea of black. The confrontation with the brother, the food splashed across the room, even the doctor’s examination had never been recorded. For some reason, the cameras had failed.
The brothers spoke above a stage whisper to each other.
“I’m going to try to get it back,” one said, typing at the rate of what appeared to be a thousand words a minute. He was looking at lines and lines of code, representing the recording that had been lost, “I can find whatever it is that’s missing. We did it before.”
The other brother held a headset to one ear, and, with the other hand, drank from a giant mug of coffee. He kept one eye on the monitor showing the goings on in the room upstairs.
“Don’t stress yourself out, Bradley,” he seemed to remind his brother, “It might be there. It might turn up all of a sudden. Remember what happened the last time.”
“When it suddenly showed up and disappeared?” Bradley retorted, glancing quickly at the footage on the other monitor before returning to his work, “I know. I just don’t want to wait too long.”
The other brother paused for a while, as though trying to show his patience, “That’s not what I meant,” he nearly clamped a breath down on every word, his attention fully trained on his brother now, “Don’t stress yourself out. You can’t let it happen again.”
“Oh,” was all that Bradley could say. His fingers hesitated over the keyboard. He looked at his brother quickly; and, with a nod, turned to the footage. He would have fought his brother and argued at any other time. That time was certainly not today.
“I just,” Bradley began, as though testing the waters before plunging into what might be a quiet debate between him and his brother, “I was thinking of the boy – the brother – in hospital. We need this evidence to tell us exactly what happened, for the doctors and for our files.”
“Maybe the doctors already have an idea, given the cracks in the wall,” the other replied, as he wore the headset, “Recover video later. Listen in now.”
Bradley grabbed his own headset, adjusted the volume on his computer, and typed into the computer monitoring the events upstairs. The brothers were in the living room, next to the kitchen; for some reason, the smell of freshly baked muffins wafted in.
“Oh, Landon,” Bradley sang, almost laughed, even, as he sniffed the air, “Guess who’s back!”
Landon glared at his brother, “Not something I’d joke about.”
“At least it isn’t shit this time,” Bradley almost giggled, “I like how they change their smells. Sometimes it’s crap, at other times it’s like home.”
“A home where you smell the muffins and get fed snakes is what,” Landon retorted, shaking his head, “Don’t mind them. Don’t mind the smells. Just keep praying.”
Bradley might have joked about it a hundred times, but he still resorted to prayer as he watched the footage on the screen, as he adjusted and readjusted the volume on his headset, and as he checked all his recording devices. He switched the monitor to the heat sensor, just to check the rooms around them. The bedroom where the girl lay was cold – but something was seeping in, something warm, hovering over everyone who watched her.
In the hallway, and in the living room, the air was crisp and trembling – even with the artificial smell of freshly baked muffins, the air was cold and blue on the screen. Bradley sighed.
“In a house with no oven, you’d think they’d be smarter,” he said out loud – and immediately regretted the joke as something heavy fell off the wall next to Landon.
“Good job,” Landon snorted, “Keep quiet and keep praying.”
“Yes, Uncle Jorge,” Bradley said in a high pitched voice.
The brothers glared at each other, and, deciding not to resort to another argument, watched the screen again.
The head priest opened the book he had brought with him, making the sign of the Cross as he did so. Everyone in the room followed; everyone downstairs followed as well.
From somewhere within the house, something sighed, as though exasperated with the goings on; even the smell of freshly baked muffins had disappeared, to be replaced by a biting cold that stung the nostrils, and that made it hard for the brothers to breathe.
“Let’s not get too panicky,” Bradley felt his heart pump up into his throat. His breath was escaping in thick, almost opaque white clouds.
“Pray,” Landon whispered, fingers trembling as he typed lines of text into his computer. From somewhere in the house, there was a growl. It seemed to come from the walls, as though there were a creature prowling hidden staircases – as though it had a thousand mouths to swallow the sunlight.
“Get out,” something said, low, almost inaudible, from nowhere and everywhere at once.
Bradley prayed quickly, bringing up window after window of recordings. He checked all his files as he watched the priest begin to read from the Roman Ritual. Bradley had felt calmed by the mere presence of the book; some parts of it he knew by heart, and he could hear them in his head as the priest began the exorcism.
“Get out,” came the same growl, louder this time.
Landon prayed, breath clouding his countenance, voice rasping with the dry, biting cold. On the monitor, he could see the parents fall to their knees by the bed, the father prostrate, the mother bowing her head once held high. Their daughter was still staring at the ceiling, her dark hair spread out over the pillow, her mouth open, purple even on the grainy feed.
Bradley hummed to himself. It was a low hum of wonder. Landon turned to him.
“That’s strange,” was all that Bradley could say.
“Understatement of the century,” Landon forgot to pray all of a sudden. He took a quick look at the thermometer on the wall, just as the cold reached its lowest and stabbed the house with a frozen blade of what felt like ice. The thermometer burst, sending mercury slithering down.
“Exploding things aside,” Bradley kept his voice steady, but with visible effort, as the dry air scratched against his throat, “She’s warm. And she has darker hair and a scar on her arm.”
“Not sure how that’s relevant,” Landon trembled.
Bradley had a file folder next to him. He rubbed his hands together, then opened the folder, leafed through the pages quickly, and compared photos from one page to the next. There were photos of the girl in jeans, in a dress, in a long skirt, in a short skirt. Her arms appeared flawless. Her hair had streaks of blonde in them; none of those streaks showed on the monitor now.
“She’s never had a scar, but that scar looks old,” Bradley held up a photo. It must have been taken mere weeks before, after the girl went to senior prom. She was in a strapless dress, and her arms ran through with clear, fake-tanned skin. Bradley pointed to the screen, right where – and true enough – there seemed to be a scar running all the way from the girl’s fingertips to her shoulder.
“Probably a trick of the light,” Landon looked from the photo to the girl. He hummed quickly as she moved, and as the scar moved with her, “Right. So – that was strange.”
“Is strange,” Bradley added, “Looks like something with fangs ripped right through. Shark, bear, not sure what.”
Landon leaned forward to look at the monitor closely. His nose nearly touched the point where the mother had collapsed to the floor, head buried in her hands, body shaking. The psychiatrist had entered the room then, and led her and the father away. There could be no distress in the room; only hope, Landon knew. Only hope.
“Shit,” Landon nudged his brother, forgetting the cold all of a sudden, “She’s got another scar.”
Landon pointed at the girl’s right leg, where an old, keloid scar seemed to run from her toes all the way under her shorts. She moved slightly, slowly, as though gearing up for a grand thrashing beneath the words of the Roman Ritual.
Landon and Bradley could hear her parents run down the hallway, and then down the stairs, and then through the kitchen, and out the door.
“Should’ve stayed, dear parents,” Bradley sang again, as he leafed through more pages, “Would’ve wanted to ask you if she’s ever gotten scars.”
“Memories of her soul, maybe,” Landon said, with hardly any drama, and as though Bradley and he had been saying the words all their lives, “Or she’s under attack.”
“They’d bleed if she’s under attack,” Bradley closed the folder, “All the file says is that she’s always been sickly, always been in the hospital, but everything leveled out at age three.”
“Most kids get sick,” Landon said absently, eyes still on the monitor, “Do the records say anything specific?”
Bradley’s gaze went from the monitor, to the folder, and back again, “Nothing. Fever, maybe flu, disappearing in days. Lots of crying. No official diagnosis.”
Landon shrugged. They turned up the volume and listened in on the proceedings, even when they knew how it generally went.
The priest was sprinkling holy water over the girl. She squirmed, showing off her scars again. Even the priest seemed bewildered for a moment: he stared at her body, then looked quickly at the Roman Ritual.
“Oh Father!” Landon and Bradley chorused.
“Not a good move!” Bradley covered his eyes with one hand.
As though prompted by his dismay, the voice of the demon came, clear but grating over the headsets.
“Do you like her body, human?” the screech was but a refrain of a thousand other voices, and it dug deep into the recording, registering at both high and low frequencies, “I can show you more. All you need to do is stop. She’ll be very very nice, just like her mother was.”
“Oh shit,” Landon took his turn to cover his eyes, “I don’t even want to look!”
“I thought he got training?” Bradley was fighting not to scream, as though he were watching an awful football game with the Queen of England, “What the hell is going on? I’m really calling Uncle Jorge now!”
The priest’s voice had been low and gentle, but it rose higher, and stronger, through the growls from the girl on the bed, and beyond the growls that continued to come through the walls.
“In the name of Christ, I order you to tell me your name!” was all that Bradley caught, as he checked the recordings and the heat signatures in the room.
“I can do anything you like,” the demon’s voice had become isolated, even velvety, soothing, “Maybe you can tell me your name? Let’s have some fun together. No one will know.”
The priests by her side continued to pray, heads bowed, but legs tensed, at the ready.
“Would you young men like a piece of this, too?” the voice was even smoother now, running through the room like warm, melted butter, “Her body is young and supple and everything you will ever want but never have – unless you surrender now. It’s so simple.”
There was no response, and only a deeper bow of the heads of the priests.
“In the name of Christ, I order you to tell me your name!” the priest persisted. And, when he seemed to calm down, “Let us pray together, In the name of the Father -”
“They can watch if they like,” the demon seemed to grin the words out. The girl looked directly at the camera, where it was perched on the farthest corner of the room, high up in the wall, “You can record this, show it off, sell it. I won’t mind. I really like it, you know, you boys watching.”
“The Lord hath said -”
“I don’t care what he hath said,” the demon mimicked, eyes never leaving the camera, “Someone watching me likes watching these things, I think. What say you, human? Shall we give him what he wants?”
Landon and Bradley looked at each other sharply. What came next was more impulse than it was double checking.
“I do not download porn,” Bradley held both hands up.
“The last time I saw porn was in a magazine and I haven’t even looked at any since way back then,” Landon followed his brother’s example.
“Shit,” Bradley covered his eyes again, “He got us. Keep praying.”
The girl pouted at them, then turned to the priest again, “I like playing these games,” her voice was now girlish, lower, smoother, “Play with me?”
The boys did not even dare talk. They simply prayed, as the girl grinned up at the camera, as the wall trembled with hisses, and as the priest spoke clearly in the background, reading from the Ritual.
Bradley stared at the girl, even when she looked away, even when her cackles and screams started thundering through the house in the middle of a Latin prayer.
“You weak human and you stupid human and all you sinful humans – what makes you think you can cast me out on your own?” the demon demanded.
“Don’t answer that,” Landon said between his teeth.
“The scar is growing,” Bradley added.
“Pray, dammit,” Landon retorted.
The boys went silent once again, with Bradley watching the heat signatures disappear across the room, save a blot of red and yellow that hovered close to the priest. Landon checked the sounds that came through. There were low frequency sounds that no one could hear, but that were registering nevertheless. He saved the audio files, just in case.
“Drink it!” the demon screamed.
The priest continued to read from the ritual, eyes fully trained on the book now, even as the girl continued to writhe and bare her legs. At one point, she even spread her legs wide open, prompting the priest’s assistants to hold her down. She nearly broke free of them, nearly bit off the arm of one of the priests as her jaws opened wide, unhinging bone from bone.
“Drink it all in, the way he made her!” the demon screamed again.
One priest’s rosary flew across the room, breaking into individual beads.
The leading priest did not relent. He asked for the demon’s name again, prompting the same voice to answer back with a scream, a string of obscenities, and finally, a burst of both cold and the smell of rotten eggs into the house.
“Oh boy,” Landon said, as he prayed beneath his breath.
“Drink it?” Bradley spoke up.
“Just pray,” Landon insisted, checking the recordings again.
“No, I’m not kidding,” Bradley retorted, watching the girl closely, as her legs and arms were held down, “This means something. And don’t say it means that I should pray more. I already know that.”
Landon simply stared, as though he’d had the same argument with his brother before. Then, with lips still moving in prayer, he turned to the monitor again.
The demon was now speaking in another language – or several, with one voice speaking above the other, and yet another speaking above the rasping, crackling refrain. The boys used to joke that it was like listening to a UN Convention, where all the delegates were fighting to be the first at the podium, and nobody followed the speaking protocols. Today, there was no joke to be made, as the priests held the girl down, and as the wounds glistened in the sunlight.
“I really wish we’d had assistants who weren’t priests,” Landon said aloud, “I don’t understand why the bishop allowed this.”
“It’s called Boston, where everyone is suspicious and where no one wants to talk about possession,” Bradley answered, opening the girl’s file again, “Dude, I’m not kidding. Of all the curses, why ‘drink it’?”
“I mean, was she bullied? Was she raped? Was there something that made this thing say ‘drink it’? Everything means something.”
Landon was about to reply, when the girl began to scream again, then try to rip open her blouse with her own teeth. Her jaws could not be put back, and there were not enough people in the room to assist.
“This kid’s going to grind her jaw bones apart,” Landon closed his eyes, “I don’t want to know what her operations will be after all this.”
Bradley removed his headset, stood up, and rechecked all the recordings, nodding as he went.
“Where are you going?” Landon vainly tried to control the high pitch his voice was making.
“There’s something about that word,” Bradley answered, deadpan, his hand on his brother’s shoulder, “I think her parents know something about it.”
“Dude, sit down,” Landon tried to pull Bradley back into his chair, but his brother had already run out of the boundaries created by their computers and recorders. He was sprinting down the hallway, and making for the back garden, Landon heard. Landon was tempted to abandon his post, but the recordings had to be watched, and the temperature in the house had to be monitored.
Bradley had his own reasons – and Bradley had his own abilities.