The story took about an hour to narrate, punctuated as it was by pauses from the priest, as he allowed the girl to digest every chapter; apology after apology from the mother, as she embraced her child; and even a staunch, “But I still love you,” from the father, spoken so low, it was nearly buried beneath the rest of the priests’ prayers.
The prayers were hardly a disturbance. The brothers were used to them: they were meant to calm the room, to ask for understanding, to beg for guidance. The psychiatrist and the doctor squinted their eyes at Fr. Callahan as the prayers went on, as though the low hums were distracting them from the story at hand.
Only Bradley seemed composed through the proceedings; he even nudged his brother once or twice, as though to remind the other that he was being vindicated.
The story was told in its most simple terms.
The mother had been unhappy after the birth of her first child, the brother who was now in the hospital. She had been depressed, but her husband had always been at work, and he had paid her little mind. He had been off on business trips then because, he said, he needed the extra money for their new baby.
And that was when the new neighbor moved in.
He was an ordinary man who loved gardening, walking around the neighborhood, and talking to random strangers on the street. Theirs had been a neighborhood where everyone knew everyone else anyway, and he fit in. His wife had just left him for another man. He had moved in to start a new life, as the head of an online startup that hoped to populate the web with good visual content. He took photos. He was nice.
The husband winced at some points of the story, but he did not interrupt.
The neighbor was alone, and he would sometimes say hello to the woman who lived next door, she with the baby and a husband who was always out. And she pitied him: here he was, pouring all his energy into the startup, exhausting all his creativity on photography, and with no one to listen to his ideas. And there she was, all alone, with enough stress to make her cry while her baby bawled, with no one in the world to pay her any attention.
They talked a lot. They shared ideas. He took photos of her garden, her kitchen, her baby. She critiqued his shots.
He took photos of her. They were fun at first, of her as mother to a child, in the garden, in the kitchen, at the dining table. And then the poses grew more sensual, sexual, even perverse. The mother never said how or why, never described the perversity to the rest of the table; but Fr. Callahan’s acridity gave away the nature of what she and the neighbor had done.
And so began the affair.
She never told her husband about it, and he never sensed that something was amiss in those times he went home. But whenever he was gone, the neighbor would visit his wife; or she would visit the neighbor, on the pretext of borrowing gardening tools; or they would meet in a motel outside town, with the baby tagging along, asleep in a bassinet.
The woman who had felt so alone, the man who had felt so rejected – they had both found refuge in each other’s presence, a listening ear where there once had been none, arms where there had once been cold.
The mother kept apologizing in a low, trembling voice, but no one was paying her any mind.
They lived the lie for about two months, after a harsh winter, and then a mild spring.
Then, the woman found out she was pregnant.
She knew the neighbors would notice sooner or later. She knew her husband would see the signs when he came home. They had not slept together since Christmas, when he had last been with her for longer than two weeks. Her baby was no more than two months old.
Then there was the shame to be dealt with from everyone who knew her. Her parents. Her newborn son. Her husband’s parents. And so many other people…
She visited her father confessor. She hadn’t seen him since Christmas mass, when he had last blessed her family. She had hardly gone to church since she was married, and she never knew why.
He told her to keep the baby and to pray that her husband would understand. And he told her to break it off with the neighbor.
She hated his advice. She remembered why she didn’t like church at all. It was stifling, and silly, and a routine that she never understood. Even confession was useless when she kept on committing the same sins over and over again – and especially when the man on the other side of the screen couldn’t understand how difficult it was to deal with the world’s temptations.
And all this time, she never told her neighbor anything. Somehow, deep within, she felt that (knew that) he would not react in any logical, much less merciful way.
She was right. He found out when he saw the look on her face after she struggled to find the words to tell him. And he told her to go to an abortion clinic because he didn’t need a child now. He was too busy, she was married, and besides, didn’t they agree that what they had wouldn’t last anyway? Why mark the whole affair with a human being?
The daughter’s tears dried completely at the words. She gasped, flinched as her mother tried to embrace her, and brought her knees to her chin. And there she sat, listening, a ball of dazed silence.
The mother walked out on the argument then, on that spring day. She didn’t want to go through with the abortion. But she was afraid of everyone, and she couldn’t face her husband in two weeks, when he came home from a long trip. She knew he didn’t cheat on her. He was much too emotionally unavailable for that, much too preoccupied with work, and able to handle the stress. But this would kill him.
So she struggled for a few weeks with the decision. And she didn’t push through with it.
She told the neighbor no, she wouldn’t. The baby would live.
He stormed out of his house, drove across town, went somewhere. She was too angry with him to care.
One afternoon, the neighbor came calling.
He looked repentant. Or crazy. Or sad. Or angry. Or afraid. She couldn’t tell. He asked for her forgiveness, brought her vitamin shakes he made himself, he said, for the baby. He said he would support her no matter what happened. He said he would take care of his child, their child, their baby. He asked her to eat something because she was so thin and he didn’t want her to ever feel alone.
He told her to drink the vitamin shakes. He had made them himself.
She suddenly felt happy again. Whole again. Loved again. She followed his orders because she trusted him and wanted him to stay. And she was so full of love and emotions and inspiration inside.
It was the last thing she remembered. His smiling face. His hand on her cheek. The baby crying in the crib.
And then there was blood, bubbling inside her, spilling out, forming a puddle on the floor between her legs. His smile fading. The baby now bawling. The spring afternoon suddenly going black.
She woke up in the hospital days later. Her husband was at her side.
She had never seen him angrier – never seen him sadder. But one look at him and she knew that beneath his relief that she was alive, he already knew her secret.
She didn’t remember what the doctor said was in the shakes. Whatever it was, it had caused her to bleed, and for her to nearly lose the baby. Her little boy had cried long and hard enough to get the attention of another neighbor, who had called 911.
When the cops had arrived at her house, they found her lying on the kitchen floor, in a pool of blood, unconscious.
They contacted her husband, and he flew in immediately. He flew when the words, “But the baby’s ok”, drifted through the phone lines. On the way home, he realized that he hadn’t slept with his wife since Christmas and she would have known that she was four months pregnant. She would have phoned him. She would have told him something. And then he saw her in the hospital with a stomach barely registering a two month old child.
And then he knew.
And he walked for hours under the sharp April rain. Walked aimlessly, thinking of what she had done, what it seemed she had tried to do.
He said he was ready to kill someone, but something held him back.
They had an infant son, now with grandparents, her parents. The father had walked to his in-laws’ house, held his little boy, ignored his in-laws pleas for him to change out of his soaking, rain-drenched clothes, and fought every urge to tell them that there was something amiss. Why he never ratted her out, he didn’t know. But at that moment, he knew he loved her too much, and that they would endure the storm.
But the anger. Oh God, the anger.
Anger threatened love but did not replace it. The father swore it then, and he swore it now, at the dinner table, before his family, before his guests.
The air of the house seemed to lift.
At that point, the girl wriggled herself out of her mother’s arms, and threw her arms around the man who had served as her father. She wept, whispered that she didn’t know. And he told her he loved her still. It was a low voice that said it, but it calmed the girl, made her keep her arms around him, made her cling to him and sob.
And so – the priest went on – the father went back to the hospital. He waited by his wife’s bedside. When she awakened, they argued, but mildly. She told him everything. He listened. He understood that he had a part in it, too. She acknowledged her selfishness. He admitted that, to some extent, his work had been a form of selflessness that had become vanity. They had their first real conversation in months.
Then it was a decade of couple’s counseling after. They moved out and fled to Boston, where they knew nobody, had no relatives. They got their son into a new school. They started a new life. They put up their own company.
The mother had the baby before they left town. It was a rough first few years. Their savings went to hospital visits where no diagnosis could be made. Their money went to doctors who could only prescribe something for their baby’s fever, and do no more. They paid for hours at their daughter’s – their – bedside, watching as she twisted her tiny body, in the throes of a nightmare that no one could measure.
And somehow, in those hours spent caring for a sickly infant that was truly not his own, the father learned to love her.
Then suddenly, it all stopped. The illnesses disappeared, the fevers leveled out, and their baby girl grew up to be healthy and happy. The family went back to church, the parents took care of their own company, their children went to school, and their family grew closer. Her brother didn’t know their secret, and he loved his sister with no qualms. Maybe the occasional hair-pulling incident, the rare scraped knee from blundering chases around the yard – but nothing big or damaging. He protected her.
It was he who had first reported that something was wrong.
His room was across the hall from his sister’s, and he sometimes heard her taking to someone in the early hours of the morning. He thought it was a boy, calling on the phone, too afraid to talk to their dad. He didn’t think of confronting her. She had her own mind, always did anyway, and could make her own decisions.
That was until one morning, when he heard her leave her room, close the door – and crash herself down the stairs.
After a night at the hospital to tend to her wounds, after a night watching her twist herself into new nightmares, after her parents found themselves back where they were sixteen years ago – everything went downhill. Their daughter had her lucid moments; but in between, she would growl to herself, call her brother and parents names, and leer at her mother as though she were ready to spill her secret.
But it was impossible. She didn’t know. She couldn’t know.
They called in the psychiatrist, their friend from church, who was seated at the table with them. The psychiatrist had examined her, found nothing wrong, and decided to call in a doctor when she started bleeding from her ears. The doctor, the same one seated at the table, had found nothing wrong with her either. But the nightmares would not stop. The attempts to throw herself out of windows and from the tops of stairs would not stop. She had to drop out of school because she couldn’t concentrate, had no sleep, couldn’t remember anything and needed someone to tell her everything she said or did a few hours after the fact.
The parents were sure that people at school were talking. But they couldn’t let the worries bother them any longer – not when their daughter was already talking in languages even they could not understand.
Their parish priest had once visited them and heard her. He swore she had said, and in Aramaic, “Leave us now”.
It was he who called the local bishop, who then referred Fr. Callahan. The bishop contacted the cardinal, who called the Vatican and filed the report. The Vatican itself sent the two brothers to document the case. As a reminder: the Vatican took all cases of possession seriously, and the grave cases had to be documented. Those who worked with the Vatican as documentors were well trained, and could recognize the signs of genuine possession themselves.
The priest chanced to look at Bradley as he said this. Bradley tried not to blink, and pressed his lips closer. The temptation was greater, it seemed, to tell the priest everything that had transpired that afternoon, when the girl was suddenly before them in all her gray glory, before she suddenly disappeared, taking all their files and footage with her.
But that wasn’t the end of the story.
The girl would perhaps want to know what happened to her biological father, the priest said.
The girl visibly fought not to nod too enthusiastically, as though fearing that she would offend the man she now held and called “dad”.
When she was born, the priest continued, her parents tried to reach out to him. They needed anything he could give by way of medical history at least, just in case doctors would ask later. They called him, sent him an email, sent someone to check on him. He ignored the call and email, slammed the door in their representative’s face, and sent a note or response back with the exact same words every time.
I have no child.
The girl’s eyes filled with tears. They slid slowly down her cheeks, marking her skin anew with dark tracks.
They were about to send a letter back, to persuade him to help out – this was around the time that the girl was in the hospital with a high fever that had no visible, discernible cause – but they saw him on the evening news first.
Man Burns Self in Home, the headline read, carrying a grainy mugshot of him taken a few days before, when he had been arrested for killing his neighbor’s dog with a shotgun.
He was deeply disturbed, the anchor had said. He had been undergoing therapy for some time, and his psychiatrist said – in an unaired interview – that he was seeing things and talking about things that were not there. He had also said that he would burn down everything and everyone because that was what his boss Beelzebub had ordered.
The air in the room grew prickly, stung, played on people’s skin. Bradley fought to swallow the dry lump in his throat.
The news didn’t make it to another night. Nobody really cared about raving, dead lunatics talking about mythical creatures. The parents didn’t think too much of it, either. It was distressing, true; but it was better for their daughter to have a good pair of parents, a righteous pair of parents, a stable pair of parents. Had she known her true father, their daughter would be a mess.
They thought nothing of it, until the nightmares began.
Their daughter was very young, maybe six or seven, when she first ran into their room in the middle of the night, telling them that a scary man was trying to take her away. It happened several times over the next few years, until she was in junior high. She would run into their room, afraid of a scary man. She would sleep on their bed. She would leave at dawn. She would not remember anything, much less bring it up the next day.
The last time it happened, she actually said that the scary man was burning. She threw herself down the stairs the following night.
And when things went from bad to worse, all they could think of was how to keep the secret from getting out.
“Why didn’t you just tell me?” Suddenly came from the mass of hair and tears, “Maybe I wouldn’t be like this if you actually just said something!”
Bradley was about to open his mouth, but it was too late. The daughter was hysterical, her parents were getting defensive, and the psychiatrist and doctor were trying to intervene. The priests had stopped their praying and were staring at the scene. Even Landon wasn’t moving.
Fr. Callahan alone had marked Bradley’s movements. They met eyes across the noise, and any unease Bradley had with the man was gone. He saw weak eyes, the creases of age, the gray skin of someone who knew how to read people.
The priest gave him a single nod. Bradley answered with a nod back, then motioned to the family.
“We need to adjourn for today,” Fr. Callahan pronounced, silencing the rest of the table, “The team and I need to discuss the next step forward. Let us pray.”
The prayers rang throughout the room, with lilts, with breaths that buzzed with the start of every “thee”, with the end of every “beseech”, with urgency and calm and love.
Nothing, however, stilled the girl. She was sobbing quietly at first, even as she joined the prayers in a halting, tear-choked voice. Soon, she was weeping, wailing low, words directed to the space between her palms, head buried in the shoulder of the man she had called her father for eighteen years.
And when the Holy Water had been sprinkled upon the last Sign of the Cross, she sprang up, stormed out, and ran to the nearest bathroom to lock herself in.
The psychiatrist and doctor were on her heels at once, followed by her parents, leaving the priests and two exhausted brothers at the table.
They listened to the conversation in the hallway, eyes to their fingers or the tablecloth whenever the girl shouted out something laden with more curses than sense, eyes rolling whenever the mother shushed her with, “Please stop! The neighbors might hear you, and they won’t stop talking!”
“You should have thought about that before you got yourself knocked up!” Was the last shout, with a tinge of a roar, an undercurrent of rage in a thousand other whispers left unheard. It sent the father out to the kitchen, where he rattled his way through a variety of knives and tools, presumably in a bid to find the right tool to break down the bathroom door.
Bradley groaned into his palm. He had witnessed the same scene many times before, in a variety of sessions that involved lies about the past that suddenly came to light. There were the tiny lies of promises of love sugar-coated by actual curses, the medium-sized lies of alcohol and trysts that happened once and were regretted a thousand times over, the large lies of hidden lives and deceit and no repentance. They were lies, nonetheless, and the forces of Hell ruled over them all. Nothing was ever harmless or venial where wars were concerned.
Bradley’s groan was more a testament to his need for sleep than fresh irritation at the situation at hand.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, when the two priests looked at him mid-prayer, “Hate to say it, but she’s right.”
“And that doesn’t really help us now,” Landon half sang.
“Just saying,” Bradley chanted back.
Landon waited as the girl’s shouts filled the house with vitriol and curses yet again, “She’ll come around in a few,” he said, one hand on his brother’s head, as though in reprimanding comfort, “As for you, you need sleep.”
Bradley shrugged, as the girl’s vocabulary of swear words dried out in a flood of sobs, and as the sound of an unlocking bathroom door filled the house with a resounding click. The brothers could hear nothing now, save the girl’s muffled sobs, the psychiatrist’s low words, the ping of a thermometer as the doctor took her temperature.
“I’m not sick, Dr. Brown,” the girl moaned.
“You know what it’s for,” Dr. Brown, the psychiatrist, retorted, in the patient tone of a professor, “Sit down and we’ll finish checking your vitals, and then you can go to bed, all right?”
“My bedroom’s a mess.”
“You can sleep on another bed for now.”
“No bed is safe. The shadow man will always be there.”
There was a pause, almost a second too long, as the parents sobbed quietly in the hallway, and as the priests paused in their prayers.
“He will be back for as long as we don’t keep up the fight,” Dr. Brown said at last, voice still soothing, tone as level as before, “So I need you to help us fight, ok? We’ll help you, but you need to fight.”
“Ok,” was the low reply, behind sputtered tears.
“And most important of all,” the psychiatrist continued, “You have to want to fight. Can I get that promise from you?”
“Do you want to talk tonight, or will we talk tomorrow?”
“All right,” Dr. Brown seemed to pronounce the final verdict on the girl’s fate with those two words. He was both firm and soothing, a combination that made the priests bow their heads to their prayers again, and that made Bradley breathe deeply, after what felt like centuries of no exhaling.
And with that, the house itself seemed to let go of years of fists clenched around secrets, of eyes closed against the past. Where there were once dark corners there now seemed to be light. Where there was once a wintry, biting frost, there was now a cool breeze. Even the sound of the telephone ringing in the hallway jarred no one, when it once caused the whole house to jump in fright.
The father picked it up, his greeting low, his words getting louder as he answered the call.
“Yes, this is his father,” came out first, jittery, halting; then, in a less trembling voice, “Yes, yes, thank you – this is most wonderful – it’s good, very good news. I can be there tonight. Yes, I’ll stay with him.”
The table heard the father take his car keys from their peg on the wall, and then announce, to all and no one in particular: “He’s ok. They fixed everything. He’ll be fine. Nothing was broken. He just lost a lot of blood, and he’s sleeping, but he’ll need someone beside him tonight.”
And with that, all they saw was his figure speeding out of the house; all they heard was his car rumbling out of the driveway. No one dared stop him, not even his wife, who was still sobbing in the hallway, or his daughter, who had been silent long after the psychiatrist had promised that she could sleep.
“We can wrap up here,” Fr. Callahan suddenly spoke up, turning the brothers’ heads toward him, “Thank you, both of you. We’ll probably need you for the next session. Wait for our call.”
The boys nodded. Bradley had to fight to keep his eyes open. “I’m sorry I have to send you away early,” the priest gestured, rather awkwardly, at Bradley, as though afraid to refer to the boy as part of his explanation, “But I need you both at a hundred percent – and I don’t want to put you in danger, young man. Not again.”
Anyone else would have taken offense at the apparent attack on their ability to keep up the fight. Bradley, however, simply nodded, waited for Landon to stand up, and then followed. The boys did not take formal leave of the family. They simply lifted their bags, spoke low to the priests in goodbye, and left. There was no need for elaborate, protracted farewells at the end of each session.
“Unless this is Argentina,” Landon had once quipped, when an older, South American priest wondered whether they had ever considered staying for a while and talking to the family.
Landon and Bradley had both been a major part of forty or so cases in the last ten years. There were no real definitions, no absolute framework by which they could judge each victim, nor any standards that dictated how exactly each session would proceed and under whose supervision and leadership. Sometimes the session would go on for a mere hour, which turned into a single hour each day, every day, for a year. At other times, the session would take place over the span of forty eight hours, with no letup, no pause.
The boys were there to document everything, from the house temperature to the temperature of the victim, from the heat signatures generated by those who were participating to the visible manifestations of those who came and went invisible, from the words spoken loud to to those whispered too high for any human ear to hear. And, when all was done, they would send the files to the Vatican, which would hand them over to priests refashioning the curriculum of the training program that formed the newly revived Ministry of Exorcism.
The recordings were difficult to take at face value, however, and they needed someone to analyze them as a whole rather than in individual parts – a task that their Uncle Jorge had promised them would be done, if only they could find priests both willing and able to take on what would be a grisly, frightening task.
“He’s been promising that since he was an archbishop,” Bradley once whined to another priest, who was also his uncle’s best friend, “But nothing’s happened even now that he’s a cardinal!”
“It is not an ordinary task, my son” was the priest’s usual answer, “Taking on the mantle of exorcist is an act of humility and debasement, an acknowledgement of powerlessness and reliance on the powers of God alone. It is a battle of power that infects everything it touches. You cannot expect one man alone to do this.”
“But Uncle Jorge said the research could help more people, Fr. Anthony,” Bradley had once persisted, in a singsong whine that any five-year old might have made, “There has to be more urgency.”
“At the risk of carelessly injuring one of our own?” Fr. Anthony would often finish, “Some have tried, all have given up. We have no other choice but to wait for an analyst.”
The same Fr. Anthony had once traveled through the U.S. (and even Europe) with Landon and Bradley, as the principal exorcist for the most extreme, ongoing cases that the Vatican needed documentation for. He might have been decades old, but he never seemed to tire, whether he was ministering to a case or training young priests who were either too frightened or too excited to open the Roman Ritual, whether he was on the road or behind his desk as the chair of the Vatican’s Office of Exorcism Research.
Bradley and Landon – the Sheffield brothers – were one among many other teams around the world, but the Vatican had already named them the most sought after of all the documentors. They were thorough, warm, compassionate, and yes, inquisitive. Landon appeared to be the more observant of the two, and he could sometimes predict when things would occur, or point out something that happened to disrupt what he saw as a regularity.
Bradley, for his part, knew what to expect out of personal experience.