Anna [Last Name Redacted]
Female, born 1996 – premature, youngest of five (mother’s note: miracle baby, difficult birth, but “rewarding”), intermittent fevers of no known cause since age 1
*First session (recorded): March 2005 – reports nightmares about man in black chasing her through a field. Speaks language with hard consonants (Ilocano?). Vomits at mass. First session in chapel. Delivered in an hour by unofficial exorcism at midnight, one demon expelled.
*Second session (recorded): March 2010 – reports nightmares about man in black chasing her through a field. Speaks language of Ifugao or Kalinga (assistant priest cannot understand words, only recognize accent). No members or friends reportedly speak it.
**Medical evaluation: normal blood pressure and blood work, no known medications, no known neurological disorders, rule out epilepsy
**Psychiatric evaluation: normal (via guidance counselor, xxx school: IQ 120, average mathematics and English skills, no remarkable high or low grades, no known disciplinary cases, no reported behavioral cases, no reported academic cases) (via xxx, SJ, independent evaluator)
**Solemn exorcism, 12 hours. Spoke Latin, tribal language of Ifugao, Tagalog, English. Required 5 grown men to hold down. Extremely violent. Scratched all 5 men with enough force to draw blood.
**Delivered after prayers to Mary, Mediatrix of All Grace, after original image is brought to room. Deliverance at midnight of Black Saturday, coughed black, pudding-like mass that immediately disappeared. Two demons (?) removed.
*Third session (recorded): November 2016. Victim no longer in college, stays home, locks self in room. Does not talk to friends. Is civil with family, but withdrawn. Sleeps ave. 20 hours a day, awakens only to eat.
**Medical evaluation: normal blood pressure and blood work, no known medications, no known neurological disorders, rule out epilepsy
**Psychiatric evaluation: normal (via psychiatric specialist, Manila, xxx hospital: IQ 122, average mathematics and English skills, no remarkable high or low grades, no known disciplinary cases, no reported behavioral cases, no reported academic cases)
**Solemn exorcism 1 (1 hour): no reaction, no deliverance.
**Solemn exorcism 2 (1 hour): only screams, no response to prayers, no deliverance
Approved by: xxx (Bishop of Lipa)
Priests: 2005 – xxx (Parish Priest)
2010 – xxx (Parish Priest), assisted by xxx, SJ
William put the sheet down and wrapped his jacket closer around him.
This one, with its level of detail, was a different case. More thorough, right down to the psychiatric testing, the diseases ruled out, the figures. Perhaps the parents were well off and could afford to take their child to good hospitals, could travel to and from the capital, had the time to devote to their daughter without worrying about their finances.
“I’m – not sure,” William’s voice faltered in the cold.
Landon was seated at his computer, reading from what William assumed was a book of prayers, and wearing his headset like a bracelet on one arm. When William spoke, the boy looked back, calm, with energy seemingly drawn to somewhere in his abdomen and ready to spring.
“I need the recordings,” William cleared his throat, felt the ice prickle his insides, “I’m not sure. I need the recordings.”
Landon was quick: he handed William the headset, and brought up the audio files ready for playing in the amount of time it took for William to put the headset on.
There was no adequate, appropriate warning for what followed. All that William heard was the abrupt stop of prayers from the Roman Ritual, then a voice that screamed and spoke, blared and whispered, roared and bellowed like an animal fighting to shake off chains of fire. He could understand nothing, hear nothing of any meaning or translatable form; but there was hatred, the kind that sat at the dinner table and swallowed the feast with slavering jaws, the kind that crept into the soul like a worm that chewed on everything with blunt, jagged fangs, the kind that made a voice pierce through sunlight with cold, black blades.
He had heard this same hatred before, in a phone call that logic dictated he had never received, on that front stoop drenched with blood and sparkling with a dance of red and blue, red and blue.
“Mine!” The voice came, finally intelligible, but no less swelling with rage, “This child is mine and you will never have her!”
And then, the prayers: fast, loud, lilting with hymns in the background. Landon watched the file, then skipped through the low peaks, which William assumed were part of the ritual. The sound made hops and jumps through vowels, like beats out of place, notes out of sync.
“Mine!” Was the voice once again, hatred reaching out gnarled fingers and crawling through William’s ears, “She was mine from the womb, and her soul belongs to my Master!”
There were low prayers, and then another scream, and then the Being spoke in a hardened, scraping language that sounded as though a wolf were growling through the tunnels of a darkened cave. Landon skipped closer to the end, right to where the demon gave its name – true to Brownie’s orders, William heard the name and promptly forgot it – before the sound of retching noises abruptly cut off all words.
“That’s ’05,” Landon closed the file, then brought up another, “Here’s 2010.”
Again, the same scream that eluded all cognitive understanding, surpassed all emotion, sharpened a heart full of hatred, spoke in an air older than time. Brownie used to say that phrase a lot, William found himself thinking, if only to keep the voice from planting itself too deep in his memories – an air older than time. It was as though there was a young air, full of innocence, that was born in a world where there were no demons and darkness, or angels and light. Or that angels were light, and therefore also were time, like light years that spanned universes and dimensions.
William allowed the audio to keep playing. There was nothing much to understand, besides, save the screaming and claims of ownership, and, eventually, the retching sounds that signaled deliverance.
Landon closed the file, then opened the last two that marked the events of 2016. From his position by the tables, William could see that the waves and crests of the audio file were smaller, fewer and farther in between, punctuated by long slots of silence. There was nothing to speak of in those two files, except prayers, rituals, chants, psalms – if there was anything to break the words, it sounded rough, like cloth brushing on cloth, or footsteps on a wooden floor, or metal clanging against glass. Landon came up against low grunts in the recording, on occasion; they were soft, but they sounded nothing like a human.
And the sun kept streaming into the room, never breaking into the frost, cold in its glare.
William shivered. He not realize how sweaty his palms were until he returned the headset to Landon, took the phone that Bradley handed to him, and spoke through a throat parched with ice.
“It’s a case,” was all he could say, to the Fr. Anthony he had met but a week before, and had hardly any greetings for now. He could hear static in the background; William guessed that the cardinal and bishop were on hold, praying, consulting, strategizing.
He was sure Fr. Anthony said something in acknowledgment, before telling him to stay on the line, to wait, for a few minutes that would feel like centuries of winter, William thought.
Landon was already on his feet, doing one last check of his box of recording equipment. Bradley was in the kitchen, with PJ, going through a general confession. The cold seemed to muffle the mumbles, to shield the words, to cloak Landon’s footfalls, to even wrap around the house and make it forget that there was a victim across town waiting to be delivered.
And then Bradley exited, and Landon took his place, and William was still on the line, still leaning against a table, still struggling to keep the phone tucked against his ear, still trying to decipher what exactly the clock on the wall said.
1:45. It had been a mere 15 minutes since PJ had burst through the front doors.
William watched the straps of his sandals, for want of anything to do. The sunbeams of early afternoon carried light onto his feet, cast his shadow onto the wooden floor, but brought no warmth, made no heat, pushed the hope out of his body.
Hope was lost. Abandon hope all ye who enter here. William trembled as the words crept through his imagination.
“You have the cardinal’s, and the bishop’s permission to proceed,” Fr. Anthony finally spoke, “I’m driving there as soon as I can, but you need to start.”
William was sure he had said something, but his words felt like frozen lead.
“Make sure the boys record this,” the priest continued, “We need to protect Fr. Alfonso as well, if anything happens – we will pray that everything goes well, but we need the recording, so please remind the boys.”
William was certain he had reassured the priest, and then raised a question, but his breath felt as though it were drawing water into his lungs.
“Yes, you can join them,” Fr. Anthony replied, “You need confession with Alfonso first. I assume Dr. Brown has protocols for sessions? Are you familiar with them?”
His answer was in the affirmative, but it could well have sounded like gibberish in William’s ears.
“Very well,” the old priest sounded even gentler, as though striving to calm William, “I now need you to hand Alfonso this phone, as soon as he can talk.”
William did not have to wait long. He was prepared to pace, to flee the monstrous sunlight, but Landon was already on his way out of the kitchen, and PJ appeared in the front room. The Jesuit seemed to be a simple priest, at first glance: he had a purple stole around his neck, a glass vial of holy water in one hand, a new copy of the Roman Ritual in another. He had been so young, so full of laughter the night before, close to frantic and frustrated that morning, a spectacle of stony composure now.
William could detect the slightest tremor in the boy’s fingers as he took the phone, a hint of unease as PJ listened to Fr. Anthony, a brush of solemn resignation as he nodded to William to join him in the kitchen.
William had had a general confession right before he had left Boston, something he had done on Brownie’s and Mrs. Brown’s insistence. He would not have gone to the chapel at Boston College had Mrs. Brown herself not accompanied him. He would not have powered through the process had her husband not been so persistent, and she so earnest, to the point that she waited outside while he knelt and poured out everything in the confessional.
There was not much to say, therefore, when it came his turn to sit with PJ. There was the anger and irritation at slow systems in his new workplace, condemnation of staff members who appeared dumb enough to build their houses where danger dwelt, maybe the occasional thoughts that broke the 6th commandment (thrown in for good measure).
PJ, like most Jesuits, was brief but substantive: appreciate culture for its merits and anger will be replaced by gratefulness, guard oneself because purity is a grace that is its own reward, pray one Our Father, one Hail Mary, one Glory Be.
And, as with most instructions given by PJ, William readily obeyed.
The confession was easier than the ordeal at Boston College, brevity of sins aside: PJ seemed to be listening to everything William said, vigilant of everything he did not. There was something about PJ that was both warm and warming, illuminating and protective, gentle and beckoning but firm and strong.
And when the confession was over, PJ simply bowed his head in silent prayer. William lost the chance to check in on the young priest, to praise him for his performance as a confessor, to encourage him, as an older brother would.
The phone that had hitherto been silent during the confession rang into the silence. PJ answered it with a low greeting, and said little else. There was no need to ask what the call was about: everyone in the house heard Fr. Anthony’s voice, with its depth, and its gravity, and its succinct strength, as it relayed the final instructions for the team, the final reminder that more priests would be on the way, the prayers to send the four soldiers out into a raging, flaming war.
By 2 PM, they were all on their way to the victim’s house, on foot: Bradley and Landon each held cameras, ready to start recording; William carried the box with the rest of the equipment; and PJ led their little procession with prayers that whispered warmth against the creeping cold.
The afternoon was sunlit, gray, golden in some other universe except for the path that the four made through the rough back roads. Every so often, Landon would sigh, switch his camera off, switch it on again, and then mutter some variant of “Thank you, God.”
Bradley was quiet, but William could hear him muttering instructions to himself, as though to ward off the biting frost.
PJ alone seemed warm, untouched by the afternoon, unmindful of how the world around him seemed to be crawling slowly into darkness. And he prayed, with words spoken distinctly, pauses pregnant with lamentations, breaths struggling to push through the smoky air.
William tried to call her, his appointed guardian angel. He tried to ignore the blast of cold that came as the response.
Perhaps she was busy. Perhaps there was a battlefield, where angels and demons fought the war that was older than time, older than the speed that angels made across the many universes that could be created out of the great distances that they covered. Perhaps she was telling him to stay away, because battles were won in the machinations of spirits that knew the lives of the ever-burning stars, not in the tiny victories of words chanted by mere men.
William came to with a jolt of ice – or more precisely, with a grip of rage that wrapped frozen talons around his abdomen, twisted his insides into thorny knots, and pulled out all his hopes.
He remembered something Brownie had told him, over Cokes and cold fries and overfried fish.
“Whatever it is, whether it’s the Devil or some fallen angel or a whole other something we haven’t given a name to,” the old professor had said, “Whatever it is, it takes everything you’ve got. It uses all your words against you, your past, your gifts – perverts everything, ruins everything, makes you think that nothing else matters except you and this little gift it gives you….a gift of despair.”
It was despair, darkness – a cold knife living in his insides. William saw the house now, felt the world bearing down on him, the way it did on that night of grinning cats and baying dogs.
The house before him was massive, at least in comparison to the houses that William had seen from the train in Manila. It had been painted with what should have been a clean sheen of white, but it looked as though a wave of gravel and milk had washed over it, and then left a trail of glass shards that cut through the wood.
William remembered his father all of a sudden. The old man had been a building contractor, had reviewed cement, wood, paint, and glass purchases for a living for over five decades. He would have laughed at the scale of the construction and its overambitious bid at a skin of cleanliness.
“No one would make a house this big and botch the paint job,” rose a voice, unbidden, in William’s head, “Why would anyone spend this much on floor space just to show off a finish scratched with chainsaws?”
It sounded like his father, but the words were hardly characteristic of the contractor. He might have been firm, but not brutal; and he would have said something to help, recommended a better brand of paint, another person to repair the damage, a new plan that worked within the old layout. Old dad was good, but his health now made it hard to keep him at home, the way that anyone who had worked in construction for decades was bound to have their insides splattered with paint particles and sawdust and cement and even that godawful asbestos.
No government was fair to its people, to its simple, hardworking men who knew only to feed their family, didn’t know how to talk to a little boy who loved books or hug a wife who liked architecture – all families were screwed anyway –
“William!” He felt a hand shake his shoulder, and the ice jolt him awake once again, “We need to go in. You don’t have to join the exorcism, but we have to start.”
It was Bradley, with a voice so clear, William doubted whether he had actually heard it. Nothing was well defined now, on that afternoon of fog and dust, in the roads that sparkled back dusky sunlight, before a house that seemed to grow dirtier by the minute – before a house that seemed to pulsate, to tremble, to breathe.
He found himself on the front stoop, in a low doorway that brushed the top of his head. For some reason, he had missed the crowd of people out front; he could see them now, the old women bent over their rosaries, the old men shaking their heads, the remnants of the path that he, the Sheffields, and PJ had made.
A few curious eyes, though cloudy with cataracts, were trained on the brothers and their cameras. The grandmothers looked at William (scowled at him, to be more accurate) and whispered to each other, their glares trained on the box he carried. William barely remembered being introduced to the girl’s parents, barely sensed how he tried to be warm, as he shook their hands, as he lowered his voice, as he slowed down his sentences and formed his words with steady deliberation.
They only nodded, he saw; nodded, bowed, joined the praying circles in the garden. His mind barely registered what they looked like, the clothes they wore, the shades of gray in their hair.
“We need you inside,” PJ said, at his shoulder, “One last assessment. The doctor is waiting for you.”
William had never been to an actual session, had never witnessed one, had only heard the recordings and, on occasion, watched the seconds-long videos. He had received what could well have been a manual of what to expect and how to respond, courtesy of Brownie; the actual practice of the instructions was not something he had ever done.
And the parents – they had lived with this for decades, had suffered to watch their youngest child, though hopeful in her survival, hopeless in her life.
He had never felt the depths of any despair as draining, as defeated, as destructive as the pull he felt then. The house, with its grayed paint, and the back that had folded in on itself, and its seemingly dirty floors, and its apparently unkempt front yard – it was all a recipe for death and disaster. Even the air was poison.
“My name is Dr. Santos,” a voice said, somewhere in front of him.
William felt someone take his hand, shake it firmly, with strength that felt crushing, stony, cold. He found a wrinkled, sun-tanned face, smiling weakly, behind a pair of thick glasses, under strands of sparkling white hair. The old man kept his hold on William, seemed to be trying to pull William’s gaze up, up into his, out, out of the despair.
“You are our psychiatrist?” The voice was halting, as though the speaker were struggling to speak, “Can we have one more assessment, please?”
William barely registered the words, let alone the house he found himself in. He could see the dark corner that had caved in, the exposed wires from the fallen ceiling, the hand of a plaster figure of some saint or other, the open pages of what looked like a yellowed bible. He saw Bradley and Landon near him, then far; the box in his arms, then gone; a corner of the house with a variety of pictures of a family that seemed to smile against the dust and yellowing of time; an untouched couch, soon taken over by a computer and recorder; Bradley running into what might be the girl’s room, with a camera, then out again, without a camera.
Landon said something about the footage being clear, thank you.
Prayers outside, wires and statues and old photographs within.
Bradley called PJ, sounded frantic.
Then PJ spoke, right in William’s face.
“You need to listen to me, William,” came strong, louder than all the mumbling in the front yard, more real than the mewling of a cat and howling of a dog in the garden of William’s memories, with force that made something in William’s head push him out of a world that seemed to be mere representation, skins, figures that meant nothing, had no name in no known language. There was no past to draw from for any experience worth remembering, no future to anticipate for any memory worth creating.
“Listen, William,” PJ repeated, in words that tore open the mere visual universe, with a voice that called to William in the hole his despair had created, “You have to pray. Don’t let it use you. Don’t let it take over. You need to pray.”
It had been ages since he had last really, truly prayed. William was tempted to laugh, until he remembered that there was an angel that wanted him to be his good self, his best self. Even if she didn’t turn up for his personal battle, she would want him to listen to the young priest.
William called forth the formula that had formed his penance, called it forth again and again in his head, felt the “Amen” ring like church bells in the insides of his imagination. He didn’t call the angel, and chose instead to call those he had called before, when he had been a young boy kneeling in a pew. Saints, martyr, patrons, listeners all; a young boy who loved books also found his heroes in the stories of the holy dead.
It made a difference, the silent prayers. He could see PJ now, after what felt like centuries of waiting; and he could see the house, could pinpoint what every single object was, could see colors and shapes; his insides felt as though they had been in unending battles for a hundred years.
He saw the clock on the wall. It was 2:30.
Around him was thick, pounding air, so heavy that it seemed to push against his skin with wiry, reptilian fingers, so alive that it seemed to lie in wait, to circle him, to threaten to creep into his nostrils and wrangle him from the inside out.
But beyond this air was the house, now clear: there was the corner of shredded wood and wires, broken upon images of the child Jesus; there were the glaring grandmothers, still holding their rosaries and prayerbooks; there was Bradley, watching him; there was Landon, checking cameras and listening to something on his headset; there was PJ, still holding him by one shoulder, and introducing him once again to the doctor.
“I apologize,” William finally heard his own voice rise up, out of his throat, ready to battle with the waiting warrior air, “I’m William, and I’ll do one more assessment. What do you need me to do?”
It was something he had heard Brownie say, to different patients, at different times, in different recordings. He wondered if his professor had ever felt despair this thick, had ever sunk so deep into his memories. Perhaps that was why his heart had finally given out.
William felt his feet move, one in front of the other, as he followed the doctor across the house. He swam, it seemed, through molasses, through black floods that wanted to drown him with fingers fat with blood, through air that choked him in anger at his defiance.
“I’ll be with you,” PJ broke through his thoughts once again, “We just need your assessment now, then your signature later.”
It sounded so clinical, so detached, so objective, that William immediately felt called to the task. He walked, finally awakened, into the bedroom.
That was where the air was thickest, heaviest, most alive; but this time, it moved with knives of piercing ice. The cold was not around him; it was gurgling, burbling, bubbling inside his guts, crumpling his belly, grumbling that he was praying, warning him that if… he… did… not… stop –
“Everything is normal,” he heard the doctor saying, “Blood pressure 120/80, breathing normal – a nurse, she said sugar is normal. She is very – normal.”
William wondered whether the man halted and stammered because he had a difficult time with English, or because he, too, was struggling with despair that ran merry circles around the room. Gift of despair, Brownie had called it; it looked lovely, the chance to be away from the rest of ugly, gossiping humanity. The same chance turned good people into bitter hermits. It was a viper wrapped in curling red ribbons: cold, beautiful, ready to strike.
“She talks but I cannot understand,” the doctor spoke, above the near inevitable slippery slope that William’s thoughts were about to take, “Maybe you can understand, Father?”
That was when William remembered two things: that there was a patient to whom all these findings belonged, and who needed to be seen to; and that a priest had come with him, had reassured him that he would not be alone in navigating the byways and winding roads that the gift of despair gnawed out of reality.
And that was when William finally saw the girl.
Or – like the gift that she had received – the viper.
PJ was kneeling by her bedside, with one hand to her forehead; William could see a crucifix underneath the boy’s fingers, could hear PJ praying low as he read from his copy of the Roman Ritual.
The girl lay quiet, eyes closed, body still; but there was an air of a spring coiling, building its energy, waiting to unleash its wrath on those who merely watched the remnants of the real battle from the sidelines.
Her skin was both human and not; when she breathed, a second layer seemed to swim beneath: a layer of overlapping, slithering, writhing grains, a layer of cold ebony that swallowed all the light in the room.
Her wrists and ankles were bound to the corners of the bed with thick fabrics; where the cloth met skin, there were blood clots and angry, crimson scratches.
And her face –
William fought his greatest battle then, to ward off the despair. She looked human at first glance, but there was no glow of blood, no undertone that spoke of an ancestry that had brought her forth into the world. There was something at the forefront, something foreign that used her body to speak what it had been forbidden to do so for a thousand years.
And somewhere within that body, the true girl was imprisoned.
William wanted to look away, at the room, to see what books she read, what she kept in the notebooks that he saw on a desk in the corner, what she liked to collect in the glass cabinet over her closet. But he could not; something in the gray darkness of her face kept him in place.
And then she spoke, and her words seemed to come from her mouth, and behind him, and above him, and from under the bed. William fought not to jump.
PJ did not stop praying, and the voice did not stop speaking. William finally recognized it; it was a phrase, or a sentence, and it sounded like someone had mangled Italian and turned it into shards of icy glass.
PJ said something to the girl in Filipino, almost on the trail of his “amen”, as he sat on the side of the bed.
“I told her that someone needed to talk to her,” he addressed William this time, “And that I’ll help translate if she doesn’t understand or can’t talk. You’ll need to sit down.”
William could not feel the earth beneath his feet, could barely register where his hands were. He knew he had to gain the girl’s trust, but to sit by her side, in close quarters, within biting range of the viper – the thought made him tremble, made his knees shake as though a hammer were constantly pounding them.
He blinked, however, and the girl’s skin became human once again. She opened her eyes, kept them on the ceiling, then trained them on PJ.
PJ spoke in Filipino, in a sentence that seemed to flow with syllables drawn into each other, strung with gentleness. The girl nodded, silent; a human nod, not the shake of a head from which venom would spew.
William took a chair by one wall, carried it to the side of the bed, and sat down.
“Anna, this is Sir William,” PJ gestured, so that the girl turned her head, “He has to ask you a few questions, all right?”
Anna was average, almost non-descript; she could well have mingled with everyone else on the train that William had taken from Manila, and he would not have noticed her. There was something in her eyes, however, that held William in place: she was there first, as a girl who needed help; but she was replaced by someone, something that used her eyes to see the world. That something looked back at him with – recognition, or amusement, an emotion that needed but a twitch of the lip, a hint of a smirk to identify.
That something left in the span of a blink. The girl was back: weak, sunken, almost resigned. William had no time to assess the change, let alone tell PJ that he had seen it.
“She says she can speak English,” PJ spoke to William, hand still cradling his Roman Ritual, his other hand holding his phone, “I’ll be right here in the room. Dr. Santos will do another check while you’re talking, if that’s ok.”
William would have much preferred to talk to the girl without any interruptions, but he knew from PJ’s tone that they were in a hurry. He proceeded, then, as soon as the doctor sat in PJ’s place and began to take Anna’s vitals.
“Good afternoon, Anna,” he felt his voice scrape out of his throat, “I’m William, and I’m a psychiatrist. I know it’s not comfortable, but I need to talk to you just for a bit, ok?”
“It’s ok,” she replied, voice coming only from her, and shaking with what he hoped was simply unease at the presence of a new person.
He looked into her eyes, partly to keep from looking at her restraints. They reminded him too much of one rainy night in Boston, and the white walls of a prison, and the screaming within. He also wanted to catch whatever had glanced at him, that Other whose pride seemed to sear through the girl’s dark, matted locks, whose disdain made William’s voice lock, catch in his throat.
William called for an angel – nameless this time, though urgently required – and received a gust of warm air on his neck in reply.
“These holds are for your protection,” William tried to keep his voice low, solid, but as flowing and soothing as PJ’s, “We don’t want you to hurt yourself. Fr. – Sucat – Fr. Alfonso Sucat will – pray over you later, and Dr. – Santos – here will keep checking your vitals, but I also need to talk to you and check how you’re doing, ok?”
“It’s ok,” the girl on the bed answered, with the same tone, the same child looking at him with the same brown eyes, with the same skin that had the blood of a human being flowing underneath.
Dr. Santos had been taking her pulse and temperature while William and Anna were talking, and was writing everything down on a clipboard. William could see the notes: 120/80, 37 C, 80 bpm. It all sounded normal. The world was normal, calm, as though there were no biting air hanging over the room, as though there were no neighbors outside alternating between prayers and watching the house with fear, as though there were no girl lying in bed and tied to its posts like a beast about to be sacrificed.
PJ was in the corner, typing something into his phone, then stopping, then typing again, then visibly holding down his unease. And then he was looking at the clock on the wall, and swallowing hard, and bowing to his shoes, and looking back at the phone again, as though he were waiting for a message that took far longer than he needed to arrive.
William hoped that the young priest was ready with his Ritual, should the snake re-emerge.
“All right, Anna,” William breathed in, then out, easing himself into a task he had only ever heard Brownie undertake, “Let’s talk about you. Did you grow up in Lipa?”
“Yes,” Anna answered, “I was born here.”
“Do you know the Virgin Mary of this town?”
A tiny smile, “Yes – I’m a devotee,” she replied. The doctor had his fingers on her jugular vein; he nodded at William, the signal that the girl was calm, and all was well, “I pray to her a lot. My mama also prayed to her when she carried me.”
The miracle baby, her files had said. William felt his spirit sink. How could this so-called Mother of God not protect this girl, who had been so happy to pray, so innocent – how could this child not have been spared?
The room grew cold all of a sudden. On the bed, the snakelike something peered once more out of the girl’s eyes, blinked, smiled, then left. Again, there was no time to alert PJ; and again, the doctor signaled that the girl was normal.
“Ok, so – is there anyone else that you pray to?” William asked, trying not to be too alarmed at the blast of cold that slapped his nape, “Like the saints, maybe angels?”
Anna’s smile was a little bit stronger, though still weak, “Only to Papa Jesus and God, and the Holy Spirit. And my guardian angel.”
“Have you ever tried, say, things like fortune telling? Maybe cards, palm reading?”
“Oh, no. My friends like doing that, but they just joke. I don’t do those things.”
“So what do you and your friends talk about?”
“Oh – just school, and where to eat, and the news on Facebook.”
The doctor nodded. Normal pulse, no excitability, maybe telling the truth. So she was devout and wasn’t into the occult and was pretty normal for a kid who had a social media account. William glanced up at PJ. The priest was staring at his phone this time, as though willing a reply to come into being.
“I need to ask about school now,” William had to go slow. The room was warming up once again, but his throat felt like it was coated in ice, “I saw that you dropped out last year. May I know why?”
The girl did not even make an attempt to speak. She simply sighed, curled her mouth into what looked like a lopsided smirk, and closed her eyes, as though her response pained her.
“I just felt like I didn’t need to go to school,” she did not open her eyes, and kept on speaking, slower than ever, as though she were struggling to put her thoughts into words, “I did not want to do all the homework and the papers. I did not want another test. I did not want to do anything.”
William felt something warm come over him, the realization that perhaps, he had stumbled on the real reason for the girl’s manic, violent episodes. The symptoms and the ideas were the same, even if the articulations were different. She struggled to put the words into sentences, strove to speak the sentences through her restraints, but he could see the telltale signs of depression. Whether it was related to, causing, or caused by supernatural or preternatural forces, he did not know or care to find out.
Perhaps it was really a child’s rebellion against years of being like – this. Tied to a bed, held against her will –
“And held down so she doesn’t do anything you don’t want her to?” Suddenly came out – a false finish to his thoughts, a voice that seeped out of the walls and crept into the room with sharp, leathery fingers, “Am I not right, human?”
The girl had opened her mouth, but had hardly intoned the words, had hardly moved the muscles in her face to shape them. The voice grated, scratched like metal on porcelain, echoed a chorus of like beings that cackled in dungeon-deep glee.
She had never opened her eyes, never moved, but everyone who was within a few feet of the girl immediately stepped away.
William found himself against the wall. The doctor was quiet, eyes still to his patient, as though he were used to the sudden changes in her identity. He stood closer to PJ now.
PJ already had the Ritual open.
“Lord have mercy on us,” he spoke, firm, loud without banging his voice into the walls.
“Lord have mercy on us,” the doctor said.
“Christ have mercy on us.”
“Christ have mercy on us.”
“Lord have mercy on us.”
“Lord have mercy on us Christ hear us Christ graciously hear us,” the voice in the walls rattled off, high pitched, almost giggling, as though every single word meant nothing in the face of its dark power, as though every syllable were a dart of black phlegm and stinging acid.
And then the phrase.
The phrase that kept repeating over and over like a chant that strangled and choked the music out of Italian. It was loud, and garish like sunlight on concrete, and growling and ravenous and spewing venom.
The poison shot from all directions, from the girl’s skin, from her near-unmoving mouth, from the walls, from the ever so many somewheres deep within the invisible barricades that crisscrossed the world of humankind.
Outside, the low prayers hummed into the afternoon sunlight. In the corner, PJ and the doctor continued with the Litany of the Saints. On the bed, the girl’s eyes remained closed. William was not sure if he wished she would open them.
“St. Anthony,” PJ rose against the whispering sneers.
“Pray for us,” the doctor answered.
“Pray for us.”
“Pray for us.”
A moment of hesitation, as PJ lifted his phone and read something. “St. Dominic.”
“Pray for us.”
The moment of reluctance stretched out into seconds, and the prayers paused.
William looked at PJ, and found the priest staring at him, eyes gentle, but seemingly even more penetrating than before.
“St. Francis,” PJ continued.
“Pray for us,” William joined the doctor’s response.
Again, a prayer rose in his head, from somewhere in his childhood, where the memories were broken into phrases he had known by heart but never given full meaning to, where every single task began and ended with words smattered together to end in an amen.
“All ye holy priests and Levites.”
“Pray for us.”
“All ye holy doctors.”
“Pray for us.”
The air grew cold, biting; William could hear running from outside, and then a knock on the door, a turn of the knob, a futile staccato of metal claps against wood. The door would not move, and no one could enter.
“Fr. Sucat?” Landon’s voice came, as though fighting against quicksand.
The doctor and PJ froze, silent. They had simply entered, the priest and the psychiatrist; but no one had locked the door.
In the next moment, PJ closed the Ritual and pronounced words against the thickening, crystallizing air.
“St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in this day of battle,” the priest now had his eyes on the girl on the bed, “Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray. And do though, o Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits that prowl throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.”
It was the prayer that William remembered, the prayer to the head of the angelic army, the lower-ranked Michael who fought the higher-ranked Lucifer. And so the Seraph fell, like lightning from the heavens, bearing light once upon a time, casting light as shadow now. The prayer had always comforted William as a child – on that afternoon, it caught the icy air and cast it out into the sun, opened a young girl’s eyes so that she was her human self, unlocked a door that had not been bolted at all.
In the doorway was Landon, and close by were Anna’s parents. Her father was clutching a rosary; her mother was hanging on to what William assumed was a cross around her neck.
“The screens went black,” Landon explained, eyes on PJ, as though deliberately avoiding the girl on the bed, “We had another earthquake. A part of the kitchen caved in. Are you all right?”
William could not help meeting Dr. Santos’ eyes; he found the man pale, crossing himself, shaking his head. William understood what the man had tried to say: the earthquake had been strong enough to break through a house, but no one in the room had felt it.
PJ, on the other hand, was not as affected. He barely moved, hardly smiled as he allowed the parents to enter their daughter’s room, spoke with only level gentleness as the father asked if mass were still to be offered.
“I’m sorry, but it was an emergency,” PJ began, “We will have mass soon, and then a solemn exorcism, and that means that I must prepare you and your wife.”
The father said something between his thank yous, between his palms folded around a rosary, and in a position of what appeared to be eternal prayer. His wife was seated by the bed, brushing back stray strands of her daughter’s hair, thin tears glistening on her cheeks, skin wrinkled, it seemed, by the ever so many sobs she had made on her child’s behalf.
Anna was silent, praying with her mother, fully human.
William did not know how to ask her parents about depression, not when he could see how they loved her, seemed to pour everything good and loving onto her, seemed to have done so since her birth, seemed to believe that what they were doing would cure her of all her illnesses.
There were some darknesses that no human light could cure, however. Perhaps that was Anna’s lot in life, to live in a world that no hope could reach, not without chemicals and medication and therapy to supersede and overturn the poor hand Nature had given her.
He could see Anna smile: not a weak, lingering smile; it was a bright, shining one that did not glow, showed no joy, almost – leered. He found it eerie, nearly frightening.
“I still need to consult with our psychiatrist before we do anything,” PJ interrupted any further thought William had on Anna’s appearance, “Dr. Lambskeep, should we proceed this afternoon?”
PJ had already called him Dr. Lambskeep the night before, but there was something worrisome in the young priest’s tone now.
“Yes, we should,” William had to reply, before he would have to swim in a sea of despair once again, “You should move forward with the solemn exorcism.”
Whether Anna had reacted or not, and what her reaction was, William could not see.
He could only mark PJ’s nod, the nod of a teacher about to berate a student, the nod of a mentor about to scold an apprentice, the nod of a priest rather than a friend.
“I need to talk to Dr. Lambskeep in private,” PJ asked Anna’s father, “Is there a room in the house that we can use?”