Bradley was already at the door leading out to the garden when he heard the louder hissing and growling from the walls. He listened closely, thinking he could make out the words; the temptation was strong, to analyze the audio on the spot, to hear what was not being said in the room upstairs. But something in his head told him to keep on walking, to ignore the voices, to subdue the temptation to overreach the bounds of duty and reason.
He opened the door, stepped out into the world, breathed deep, and watched the girl’s parents.
It would have been a wonderful spring day in Boston: the world above the house was blue and white and clear, the gardens were shedding the last traces of winter and sporting their greens and purples, and the grass beneath Bradley’s feet crackled as he walked. Before him stood the girl’s parents, arguing.
He made out a few words, chief among them: “I told you so.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Bradley began, as quietly and firmly as he could, “But I need to ask you a few questions before I go back inside.”
Bradley got a closer look at the girl’s mother. He had been present at all the family interviews, and she had never looked as bedraggled and desperate as she did now. As for the father, he remained calm, placid, even, as though he had been scolded and could do nothing but listen.
There was something in his eyes, however, that Bradley had never seen before. He could not call it a secret – more so knowledge of a secret; and fear that once it leaked out, everything would fall apart. To Bradley, the secret would allow everything to finally make sense.
“Again, I am very sorry,” Bradley restarted, after the mother’s sobs faded away, “I need to ask you a few more questions that were not covered in the interview.”
The father looked back at him, eyes narrowed, gaze fiery. It was the mother who spoke.
“We will speak to no one but the priest,” she trembled. Bradley could see her vacillation; he knew she wanted to talk, but her husband kept her from doing so. Her blonde head sparkled in the sunlight, caught the color of the sky; she bowed her eyes to the ground.
“I know that I don’t have the authority that Fr. Callahan does, but your daughter is suffering upstairs. She’s been suffering for weeks now. Fr. Callahan can only do so much,” Bradley caught his voice speeding up at the end. As though on command, the girl’s scream pierced through the garden: it was but the tinniest of her screeches, but it escaped the bedroom windows, rustled imaginary winds through the garden, rattled the house, brought the mother to tears once again.
Bradley took his chance. He heard a prayer in his head, somehow urging him to keep talking.
“You said she was a sickly baby and that she was in and out of hospitals, but you never knew what she was sick with,” Bradley kept an eye on the husband, who, despite his wife’s sobs, kept himself at a rather cold distance from her, “I need to know: did she hurt herself, or cut herself? Maybe in her arms or her legs?”
“No,” the parents chorused, the father hardened, the mother still sobbing.
“Did she ever hurt herself when she was a baby?” Bradley persisted, trying to make out the mother’s voice beneath her tears, “We’re looking at a sharp instrument, maybe a really sharp knife or pick -”
“No,” this time, only the mother replied.
“Does she have any enemies, maybe classmates, someone she met online?” Bradley prayed that he was not too probing, but the previous year’s events, and the anger that seemed to explode everywhere, did damage to everything it touched. He could leave no stone unturned, “Did she ever mention any arguments she might have had on Facebook, anyone harassing her on Instagram -”
“Look, son,” the father interposed, glare now even icier, one hand gesturing, “I don’t know how you do it in England, but we don’t ask questions like that around here.”
“Sir,” Bradley watched the father’s hand closely, “I just need to know -”
The father uttered something between a curse and a growl. Strangely, the mother had stopped sobbing, and was now watching Bradley closely.
“Sir – ma’am,” Bradley swallowed hard, “Your daughter is-”
“Her daughter is suffering, I know!” The father nearly screamed, but lowered his voice, eyes darting everywhere as though he expected his neighbors to catch him, “I’ve known for a year now, and we don’t want any more trouble. We just want this to be over. So get back in there and do your job-”
“Her?” was all that Bradley said.
The father paled. Over his eyes glazed memory, and upon it, resentment – and upon it all, anger. He seemed ready to fly at Bradley, but his wife grasped his arm in time, held him back, and spoke above the knot in her throat.
“She is suffering,” the mother spoke every word, eyes dark upon Bradley, hair glistening in the sun, “Make it stop. Do your job.”
There had been a buzz in the air, like cold white noise that no one knew was there until it was gone. The buzz had disappeared, as had the screams from upstairs. Bradley stepped back, listened closely as doors in the house opened and closed, and as footfalls echoed from the rooms upstairs.
“We’re done for now,” he felt his own voice deaden, “Fr. Callahan will be out in a while. I suggest you talk to him. And please make a clean confession.”
Bradley hated giving advice, and not because it wasn’t good; he hated giving advice because people would laugh at him, as though he’d asked them to strip naked. Confession truly was stripping naked. Very few people had the courage to do it. Even fewer people had the courage to make a very good one. An honest one. The confession to end all confessions.
The back door creaked open behind him.
Bradley turned around, but just in time to see the mother brighten, as though she were ready to follow what he had asked her to do.
Fr. Callahan was standing on the steps that led to the back door. The soft lines of his face were brightly lined with streaks of both sweat and tears, and all the creases created by his work were sharper, darker in the spring light. At first glance, his green eyes seemed empty; but a closer look showed how he examined the world in all its detail, as though his world of shadows were so often shrouding the universe, that he had to commit all things sun-swathed to memory.
“Sir, Madame,” he had a bit of a Boston accent, a hint of an Irish brogue, both burbling beneath exhaustion, “Your daughter has been through another episode, and it is worse than anything she has ever been through.”
The priest’s words were slow, plodding through the suddenly oppressive garden. Bradley nodded at him, then made to return to the house, indicating slightly, and with only his eyes, that the priest had a new task that would perhaps set the old, ongoing one to rights.
Fr. Callahan read the boy immediately, “I need to talk to you now, Sir, Madame,” and, lower, as Bradley passed him, “Stay inside and don’t let anyone come out.”
Bradley obeyed, one hand closing the back door behind him, the other finding support on one wall. He let out the breath he had been holding since he had been in the gardens. The air in the house was lighter than it had been minutes earlier; there were no smells now, no muffins or refuse or rotten eggs. There were, however, mumbling from upstairs, and the clickety-clack of a keyboard being used to within an inch of its life.
“Is that you, Bradley?” Came Landon’s voice, through Bradley’s muddled brain, “Need you here. We have a problem.”
Bradley shook his head briskly, as though to push out all thoughts of the girl’s parents and what seemed to be a fiercely guarded, even shameful secret. He didn’t bother putting on a smile; he returned to his brother’s side, sprinting, his heart calming down.
“Sorry,” he sat on his chair again, tried to put his headset on, and then stopped.
Landon had not even looked at him, and Bradley could not help following his gaze.
Landon was staring at the monitors. The psychiatrist and doctor were upstairs, talking by the girl’s bedside. The psychiatrist was taking the girl’s pulse, and was starting to measure her blood pressure.
The doctor was slowly holding the girl’s face, and trying to reset her jaw. He was holding her head steady: even on the monitor, the brothers could see that a thin stream of blood was coursing its way down her neck. The jaw had probably fractured, and one sharp, broken piece had probably sliced her cheek open. The cloth the doctor held to her face was slowly darkening with blood.
“We can’t let her stay,” Landon said at last, “She needs to go to the hospital now.”
Bradley swore under his breath, “How do we explain this?”
“We’ll let them decide,” Landon typed something into his computer, pulling up the files from that morning’s session, “But that’s not the problem. Look at this.”
Landon opened a file, bringing up footage of the last few minutes, which Bradley had missed. Bradley watched as the girl thrashed, her shouts matching what he had heard her scream, the scars on her legs appearing and disappearing.
But what struck Bradley was the time register on the video, marked out by large white letters on the bottom right corner. It suddenly read, “April 9, 1995” before shifting back to their current date.
“Play it again,” Bradley’s voice scraped out of his dry throat.
Landon obeyed. The video remained the same, the date changing, and then flickering back to normal.
“One more time,” Bradley spoke.
“You’re welcome,” Landon replied.
And there the date was again, changing with an almost audible crunch.
Bradley opened the girl’s folder again, and looked for her birthdate. September 29, 1995.
“I looked,” Landon interrupted Bradley’s intake of air, “It’s over five months before her birthday. Maybe it’s a glitch, or maybe we’re looking at a trick -”
“No,” Bradley cut him off, closing the folder, “It makes sense.”
Landon closed his open mouth, “Right,” he closed all the open files on his computer, “Talk to me.”
Bradley followed his brother’s example, but kept his computer running with all the live feeds up, and all the temperature measurements still running. He took a quick look at the screen, then at the file folders before him, before he turned to Landon.
“I tried to talk to them,” Bradley gestured with his head to the gardens, “They weren’t exactly cooperative, as expected. But her dad said something weird. He called her ‘her daughter’.”
Landon hummed, “Not ‘my daughter’?”
“Maybe he’s mad at the situation.” Landon suggested.
“Or maybe she’s not his child,” Bradley retorted broadly, stopping only when Landon’s raised eyebrows had finally settled down, “No parent would ever say that, not even in anger, not even in panic. He said it like he’d always said it before.”
Landon looked from his brother, to the wall, where beads of mercury continued to slowly drip down from the shattered thermometer. They sat quietly for a moment, listening to the footfalls of the priests upstairs. There was the sound of glass hitting glass; the monitor footage showed the priests sweeping the mess off the floor, with the doctor and psychiatrist still discussing something over the girl’s calm body.
“Let’s pretend you’re married and you find out your wife’s pregnant,” Bradley watched the footage, eyes glazing over, “Let’s pretend you’ve found out that it’s not yours. What do you do?”
Landon’s brow furrowed, as though he were struggling with a dozen possible answers, “Right now, I’d say I’d forgive her and let her have the baby – but that’s only because we’ve just finished another session and I don’t want to sin ever again. But,” and here, Landon raised a hand, as though anticipating that Bradley would interrupt him, “If I were just having my dinner, and the missus just says it over the potatoes, ‘Dear, I’m having a baby but you’re not the dad’…. Well, I’d have to pick between strangling her and hunting down the real dad and beating the shit out of him.”
Bradley’s eyes widened.
“You asked,” Landon glared back.
“Fine,” Bradley let out one long breath, “All right – what about the baby?”
“She’s gotta have it,” Landon answered quickly.
“But what if he,” Bradley’s head gestured to the garden, “What if he didnt want it?”
Landon swallowed hard, “Are you saying he told her to have an abortion?”
“I’m saying he told her to have one, and she had one, but it failed,” Bradley spoke every word in a low whisper, as though afraid that the people upstairs would hear, “What if he just decided to accept the baby, as-is?”
“It explains the sicknesses until age three, and the wounds. Her soul remembers it. She just doesn’t know.”
The footfalls upstairs had stopped. The brothers turned to the monitor, watched the priests pray over the girl, watched the doctor prop the girl’s cheek with a new piece of cloth, watched the psychiatrist try to awaken the girl with words that they could not hear.
“There are botched abortions all over the world,” Landon finally said, “You don’t see the grown adults getting possessed.”
“Then maybe something happened,” Bradley said, almost automatically, “Maybe there was just a lot of anger around the house and that called them to her. Or maybe there was a lot of hatred and she just sort of absorbed it. Or maybe someone cursed her and she’s just manifesting now. Or -”
Bradley’s sharp inhale made Landon jump in his seat, look at his brother, then follow his brother’s gaze. Right before them, no more than a few feet away, was the girl herself. She was standing in her nightclothes. Her hair lay in moist masses over her shoulders. But her jaw was fixed, and there was not a drop of blood on her body.
Her eyes were fully trained on Bradley.
“All of the above,” she spoke. Her voice was clear; her eyes alert.
But as the brothers blinked, so did she disappear.
They scrambled to check the footage. The live feed, which they had kept on for hours, had not been recorded. And all attempts to try to rewind or find footage from the last two minutes simply resulted in the computer crashing and then restarting. Landon typed line after line of code, trying to bring back the images, and succeeding only in sweating from head to foot. Bradley kept on restarting his own computer, trying to get any backup file.
Half an hour later, the brothers gave up.
The monitor continued to show the group upstairs praying over the girl’s body. She had not moved at all.
“That couldn’t be her,” Bradley finally broke the silence that had covered him and his brother through their file-searching ordeal, “It would have been the demon.”
Landon closed his laptop gently, “Or she could be asking for help,” he watched the monitor footage again, “Or she could be trying to help us – that is, if you’re right about all this.”
Bradley was about to insist that he was right, when the back door opened, and the priest walked into the room. He looked even more drained now, even gray, as he took the chair nearest the enclosure created by the recording equipment, pulled it closer to the brothers, and sat down slowly.
As he looked up, so did the brothers see how nearly colorless his skin was, as though his body had shrunk upon itself, and his skin had eaten away the muscles underneath. His hair, once brilliantly white, seemed to deaden. He had aged in both appearance and words, and he could hardly meet the boys’ eyes.
Behind him came the parents. The father’s face was flat, as though he were fighting not to weep, or to lash out at his guests.
The mother, on the other hand, seemed to be at peace. She was not smiling, nor was she weeping; but her shoulders seemed higher, her age harder to guess. Even her voice had gained some roundness.
“We need to call the team,” she nodded to Landon, “Please call everyone downstairs.”
“The doctor and one priest should stay with her,” Fr. Callahan added, “She needs to rest.”
Landon nodded once, took a radio from a bag behind him, and called one of the priests in the room upstairs. He watched on the monitor as the priest looked up at him, waiting for instructions.
The girl was awake. In between the mad dash for files and the priest’s entrance with her parents, her jaw had been reset and she was no longer bleeding. She was even nodding at the psychiatrist.
“Please call her down,” the mother spoke, voice rough with tears, “She needs to know.”
The rest of the room turned to her, then to the head priest. He breathed once, looked at the father for approval, and waited. When there was only a tremble of the latter’s lips, he nodded his assent.
“We need everyone down here please,” Landon spoke into the radio, “Everyone. Now.”