The next few days were a blur of new things for William, and the call to Landon never became a reality. Everyone seemed to expect him to be wide eyed, even critical of the state of the city in which his new university was situated. They seemed to wait for him to request for typical Filipino fare for lunch, or to ask about beaches that he could visit on the weekends. Everyone offered the information anyway, of this or that restaurant, of this or that beach, even when William remained polite, almost unenthusiastic.
One group of students even had the courage (the gall) to ask if he had ever been to Korea, if he had ever met any Korean pop stars, if he ever watched Korean dramas. No. No. And NO. William was careful to be civil and gentle; the students had labeled themselves superfans, called themselves ARMY (he sneered inwardly, knowing what it meant). Their eagerness was more ire-inducing than it was heartwarming, and it made him strive even harder to cultivate an image of the Serious Psychiatrist, rather than some person driven by what looked to be his race. He tactfully (he hoped) kept up the unenthusiastic front – except for where work was involved.
Work, after all, was also what landed him the new job: the network of scholars at Boston College had passed on his scholarly articles to their colleagues in the Philippines when a call for Head of Counseling came through, and the offer arrived in his email mere weeks after the research articles had seen print.
Understanding the afflicted: a study of counseling sessions of patients diagnosed with multiple personality disorders
How beliefs about exorcism and demonology affect students’ willingness to seek counseling
“I Don’t Care What You Think”: Counseling teenagers with no religious beliefs
Narratives of the hidden: how traditional Catholic students navigate liberal university life
Supernatural beliefs of university students and their effects on planned study behaviors
His resume looked great. His email wasn’t as fortunate. No university would dare take on a PhD who flew in the face of psychological research and dared speak against those who saw exorcism as therapy, as a strategy to quell inner demons, a dialogue within self that could exclude the so-called backward clergy.
All but one university didn’t dare.
William took the offer readily, almost to the second that he read the end of the email, which had been signed by the university president himself. The letter said that the university valued mental health in the student body, and that the university had always been at the forefront of addressing mental health issues in young people. William liked that.
And in the Philippines, too, where he wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb (except for his Midwestern American accent and last name. Thanks, Dad).
He fit in, amongst people whose skin color nearly matched his, whose eyes had a slightly upward slant that belonged to specific ethnic groups that were so carelessly cast under the umbrella of “Asian” back where he had grown up. He was closer to his mother’s home, and far, far away from everything else.
It was a nine-to-five job, he had been told; occasional last minute overtime for emergency cases, maybe speaking engagements for students or faculty who needed to know more about the counseling office’s work, maybe a teaching position, plus research if he wanted.
He would head the counseling office. Maybe speak, yes; do research, of course, one of these days; teaching, maybe not. It wasn’t his thing, and he certainly couldn’t do it the way he saw the university faculty doing it, the way he saw the young professor Agnes doing it.
He saw her sometimes, in the corridors after classes were over, on the red brick roads that ran between the buildings and snaked beneath the trees of the campus, in the middle of groups of students who sometimes appeared no older than she. On rare occasions, he would see her enclosed in her students’ arms again, speaking in low tones, before ending what seemed to be a session of whispered incantations and spell casting. Whatever it was, it was not evil; only interesting, and a constant reminder to William that he was not a teacher and could not handle this kind of closeness, this nearness to students. Or to people, in general.
So he took the job. It was work. Far, far away. In a country where Christmas came in September and reportedly lasted, carols and all, until February. In a country that was supposedly one of the last bastions of Catholicism anywhere in the world, but where the headlines were peppered with murder, misogyny, and matters that ran the gamut of corruption and injustice. In a place where people were welcoming and hospitable to foreigners, but seemingly inconsiderate, even hateful to their own countrymen. In a university that was vocal in its disagreement with the country’s president, and seemed a haven from the bleakness of the world without.
William, truth be told, liked the campus. It was warm with welcome, cool in the shade of its many trees, bustling with energy and laughter. There was a sadness beneath, he thought; something between tears and a history that shrank from being spoken of out loud; but it felt like a home.
So into it he fled.
The job, a routine, his own condo unit near the university close to a McDonald’s and Starbucks – it was a good deal, better than anything he had been offered in Boston or elsewhere. Far away was what he wanted. Far away was exactly what he got.
His friends emailed him, checked on him, jokingly asked if he was still alive, if he already had crowds of squealing teenage girls on his heels who mistook him for a Korean star, or if the president’s hitmen had already stormed his place. His replies came pre-formatted: Alive, kicking, meetings, work, and a partridge in a pear tree – way too much Christmas, and too early; but no, there was no one after him, even in a country that seemed to like its dramas both on TV and in the presidential palace.
Being far away made him feel more alive than ever. Being in a routine, with new people, in a new country he had never been to – it was a little more vibrant sort of alive, the kind of alive that a refugee might feel when thrust into a chaotic hiding place that knew nothing of his private wars.
William plunged into work in those first few days, where he forgot about his jetlag, even forgot about Landon and Bradley and the email that he wanted to send them. He always walked to Starbucks for his morning coffee and muffins, then to a local grocery store to pick up food for the staff, was at work by nine, had lunch while working, worked all day, and walked home at night. He was always too tired to look back on all the hours that had passed.
He had heard something once, back in Boston College, half a world away.
“Reflect on your day, always,” a priest had said, to a circle of kids who had contemplated suicide, “Look at the small triumphs, and see where they could easily have turned into tragedy. And you will see that God is in all those things – but you must seek Him.”
William kept remembering it, but wasn’t sure why it rubbed him the wrong way. Perhaps it was the idea that God demanded to be sought, and it was this image of the spoiled brat of a father that made him question the priest’s counsel. It was so easy to tell kids to count their blessings, when those same kids couldn’t even see their world in clear-cut ways. Blessings blended into barbarics, happiness into hell. He knew what those blurred lines were like, how they bit and scratched his heart, gashed into his soul.
So he fled, into a refuge far away from anything he had ever known. During the day, he was treated as just another person in a university, no special privilege for being an American-surnamed half-Korean working in a Southeast Asian school (except they called him “sir”, which was taking a lot of getting used to).
At night, he ate his little meals of burgers and fries, or pasta, or fried chicken. And he watched documentaries on Netflix, or local news, or CNN, and then slept.
Alone – far, far away was where he was, just the way he wanted it.
And then there were the meetings. Anyone new to the university – to the country – would have groaned at all the meetings he had to go to in that first week. But William – he ran into them. There were meetings with the counseling staff (the first one interrupted briefly by his search for his wayward umbrella), student representatives, faculty representatives, and administrative representatives. He was introduced to this and that student leader, this and that researcher, this and that professor who had encountered more than the usual cases of troubled students.
He shook hands, smiled through the exchange of business cards, laughed (dutifully) when students cracked their jokes about creating memes out of their inability to sleep even when they had no schoolwork, spoke only when asked about his opinion on the best way for professors to unwind after a long semester of having to deal with the demands of teaching and research.
“You have to look after yourself first,” was the template of his response, given in varying permutations at each new encounter, with words such as “love”, “care”, and “understanding” added, “While we are all called to excellence, we can only function as sound minds in sound bodies.”
His previous work with a Jesuit institution allowed him to speak the language, to anticipate how students would reason should he say anything contentious. William fit in, did not stand out. It was a different kind of peaceful, the kind where no one asked too many personal questions about you for as long as you were quiet and always looked busy.
So there were meetings to start his life as an administrator, and they made him look busy indeed.
His last meeting was unexpected. It came at the end of his first month in the Philippines, on a Friday that stalled the traffic on the highway in front of the university. He would have gone home to his condo as soon as the 5 PM bell rang, if not for the rain, the floods that brushed the edges of the curbs on campus, and the winds that howled through the trees, rattled the office windows.
A new typhoon had finally arrived. It came on the heels of a weak one, one that had barely cast down rain, sent out a whisper of winds. This new one had brought more than water and air to show for its presence; it brought in electric, blaring bass drums of thunder and lightning in its wake.
The phone rang, loud, battling against the thunderstorm.
“Sir William?” The receptionist sounded as though she had been scolded by whoever had made the call, and she could only swallow loudly in reply, “That was the House of the Jesuits. They have priests coming for a meeting with you.”
There was no request or permission, only an implication that the meeting had been set in stone since the creation of the world. Only William and the office secretary remained; all the counselors had gone home early, and had warned the skeptical William that the forecasted rains would be awful, in the same way that all rains in the country always were.
William had brushed off their concerns, thanked them for the warnings. Hours later, he regretted not taking them seriously as he stood by the office windows and watched the world through a blur of rain. The thunder seemed alive. The cars nearly floated through ankle-deep floods, cracked their metal skins against sharp drops of water, and tooted horns in a futile effort to move the traffic forward. Students were shouting to each other about dinner, or getting drunk, or not having the right shoes or umbrellas for the typhoon. Some of them even laughed, loud, raucous, slightly grating for William, to be honest.
And somehow, through this melee, Jesuit priests would be making their way to him for a last minute meeting.
“I’ll see them in my office,” William’s words came with a sigh, “I’ll get some coffee started.”
He had not even finished his sentence, when the secretary sprang up and made for the coffee machine herself. She cleaned it out, spooned fresh grounds in, added the water, and, while the coffee brewed, threw open the fridge door and searched the boxes for food. William knew that the fridge was stocked with all sorts of pastries and sandwiches. He had designated himself the supplier of all the snacks for the office, the way he always had been even back during his post doc at Boston College – and he had amused the counseling staff endlessly.
“You might really be Filipino, sir William!” One of the counselors had told him, which had made William laugh (except for the unwarranted knighthood, which, again, was a little difficult to respond to).
The office secretary was, thankfully, on meeting patrol perpetually every hour. It had taken her no more than a few seconds to fix the food, and William simply stood and watched her, unable to say anything in the face of something that appeared so well rehearsed and orchestrated.
“Just wait in your office, sir William!” Was the voice from the depths of the refrigerator, where foil and plastic crackled loudly, “I’ll bring coffee and sandwiches, and you just need to tell me if you want your pastries for dessert.”
William had already settled for another bag of takeout for dinner that night. He had been living on McDonald’s and Starbucks since he had arrived (with the exception of a few snacks on campus for meetings). He had been ready to sit down with lasagna and hot tea, a perfect match to the rainy night; maybe even write the long-delayed email to Landon and Bradley, on how he thought his job seemed to be about meetings, meetings, more meetings. He wanted sleep, and at home, in his condo, in his own bed, if not for the still pouring, lightning-sharpened rain.
He offered to help prepare the food, hoping his voice carried across the noise of plates and forks.
“Just sit, sir!” The secretary insisted, brushing him away with a smile that was halfway between panicky and excited, “I do this all the time!”
He thanked her, but felt his feet dawdle, in a perpetual dance of running in place and not knowing where to turn. He had never had his own secretary, never had to be waited on, never had been called “sir” or told that he had meetings scheduled on his behalf. It would still take a lot of getting used to.
He decided to sit in his office. He started up his email, just in time to hear the thunder rumble against the glass windows next to him. The Boston thunderstorms had taught him to stay calm even when the skies seemed to be raining metal shards. There was something about this rain, however, that was darker, sinister, as though a great cloak of oil were wrapping around the world, pulsating in the night, crowding out both sky and stars.
He heard the main office doors open, and the secretary greet a priest. There was an exchange, in Filipino, in sentences long with what sounded like well wishing and observations on the weather. William had not learned a word of the language yet. He kept to his desk, waiting until the Jesuit would be shown in.
“What a typhoon! It’s close enough to flooding out there!” The newcomer shifted to English, “Do you have an umbrella?”
“Of course – and thank you for asking, Fr. Matteo,” the secretary replied, “Let me take you to our new Head of Counseling -”
“Oh no – not until Father Lector comes!” The priest coughed. There was a gentleness to the man’s tone, as though the still unseen Fr. Matteo were chanting to the skies to calm them, “We’ll just go in together. Have you had dinner yet?”
“Not yet, Father, but I’ll have dinner at home,” the secretary said, typing out something on the office computer, “Would you like something to drink while you wait?”
“No, but thank you, miss,” was the still polite, still soothing response, “But I’m sure Fr. Lector will be hungry. He’s had meetings all afternoon.”
“What about water?” The secretary kept on.
The priest laughed, “Thank you – Father won’t be long, so don’t worry,” and, with another cough, “Why don’t you go home? I can help clear things up later. It’s getting late, and you don’t want to miss your dinner.”
“Don’t worry about me, Father,” the secretary said, voice light, “Besides, it’s too dangerous to drive!”
There was a pause before the priest’s reply, and William felt it ease into the conversation, as though a director had fed the priest his lines.
“You’re very well protected, so you don’t have to worry,” the priest began, voice even smoother than before, “Pray to your guardian angel. He’ll help you.”
The secretary was about to say something, when the door to the counselors’ office opened yet again. The secretary greeted the newcomer, with the same warmth with which she had spoken to Fr. Matteo, but with far more meekness – a fear, even, as though the priest who had walked through the door had commanded her to pay homage.
William did not have long to wait to see what had subdued his usually sprightly secretary. She showed the two priests to his office, brought in a tray with coffee and sandwiches, and shut the door – all in a smooth flurry of movement punctuated only by quick thanks from William and his guests.
William had a chance to finally observe the priests, in those few seconds between them entering his office and his secretary leaving. One was a Filipino, at least a decade older than William, which was still young for the scholarly Jesuits. He was youthful in his comportment, but old in the eyes, scrutinizing even, as though he were watching William’s every move, waiting for a fiber of his shirt to be out of place. His hair was probably combed well that morning, but it was sticking out at all angles now, and quite a match to the priest’s damp collared shirt. A few drops of water still dripped down the man’s temples.
The older Jesuit, however, caught William’s attention almost immediately. He was a foreigner, with a balding pate on which struggled a few white hairs, and with pale skin made rosy by the tropical heat. What made William freeze in place – and what might have calmed his secretary – were the priest’s bright blue eyes, all at once gentle and piercing, firm and watery, a raging sea and a calm sky.
It was he who first held out his hand for the shaking, with a smile both sad and warm, and bright blue eyes still trained fully straight at William.
“Dr. William Lambskeep,” the older Jesuit pressed William’s fingers together, but his handshake seemed sickly, as though he were trying to hide his weakness, “Good evening. Thank you for agreeing to meet with us on such short notice.”
“Good evening,” William found it difficult to take his eyes away from the man. The accent was neutral, but closer to nasal, perhaps the US West coast, “I’m sorry I don’t have a better dinner for us at the moment -”
“Nonsense,” was the warm interuption, coupled with the older Jesuit’s other hand pressing down on William’s, “We’re intruding on your time – and in the middle of a typhoon, at that; but I assure you that this is serious, and quite urgent business. I am glad, for my part, to finally meet you.”
William wondered at the man’s familiarity, “Thank you – I was not aware that the Jesuits were informed that I was head of counseling.”
The older priest smiled mildly, “I am Fr. Anthony Lector,” he pressed the hand he still enclosed in both of his, “I believe you worked with Landon and Bradley Sheffield on the Boston case? If you ever had to email, or if you ever heard mention of a Fr. Anthony at the Vatican, then that would have been me.”
William felt himself sink into his chair. The priest had let his hand go, and had taken his own seat, but not without gesturing toward the younger Jesuit next to him.
“This is Fr. Matteo Castroverde,” Fr. Anthony seemed abruptly cheerful, as though trying to make up for the rather dark beginning to their meeting, “He works with me in the exorcism ministry.”
William reached his hand out and shook Fr. Matteo’s, but heard nearly nothing, felt nothing of the grip that clasped his. All he could remember were the hours spent in Dr. Brown’s office, the transcripts, the stories of the girl who had thrown her brother against the wall and nearly killed him, who had been the product of a secret adulterous relationship that had been doomed and cursed from the start. The visit had a thousand implications for the student body that he had served for but one month, and those implications started to crowd into the sentences that he had tried to form.
All he could hear was Dr. Brown’s voice, as he talked about the victim one afternoon, over coffee, after hours of fruitless searches through the transcripts for patterns that would give the demons away – or, in William’s case, that would show that the girl was making it all up, piling lie after lie, until nothing that she had said made sense.
But everything had. And William had to eat a slice of cheesecake to keep himself from cursing the case.
“How could no one have seen it?” Brownie had asked, more wondering than reprimanding, “She was surrounded by people all the time. They should have seen something!”
But people would always miss something. They thought they knew their daughter, but parents, friends, people on the street – they had no access to worlds hidden, secrets kept, universes concealed behind smiles, or jokes, or laughter. People would see what they expected to see – and then miss the truth.
William felt his hands grow cold at the thought.
“Please have some sandwiches,” William had to speak up, or his imagination would take over once again, “Please help yourselves.”
Where there were exorcists, there was trouble. There was another victim perhaps, discovered on this stormy night, closed off from the rest of the campus, and perhaps already named in the Jesuit files as somebody they had to watch out for, monitor closely, document, ask the family about.
He wished he had written Bradley and Landon sooner.