The house stabbed sharp shadows into the night, all angles framing windows of smoky shell and sand, all wood and brick crawling with shade, all dark corners seemingly doing battle with the stars. Below was a garden, a path bordered by flowers, an arch entwined with vines. There should have been crickets to herald the summer, and a low buzz of insects, of droning birds, of bats still prowling the world beyond.
There was only a scream. And then, silence.
Outside the fence was the rest of humanity; within the grounds was an unseen fog that seemed to craft its own universe, its own tale, its own language spoken with a hundred tongues burning with dark fire.
They all felt it, as the van rolled out of the main road and into the property. Something seemed to greet them, then scurry away. Something whispered an order for them to leave.
Bradley gasped as the van rattled with the voice.
“Nothing we haven’t heard before,” he tried to control his words, as the van trembled over the asphalt road, and as his breath came out in a thick, white mist.
The house and its lights peeked through the trees that filled the property. A thousand eyes seemed to peer at the van now, following the team as it drew closer to the house, blinking at the priests who rode in the front and whispered their prayers to a van growing heavy with cold.
Fr. Matteo drove on, eyes darting to the mirrors on either side, gaze sometimes lingering on the rearview mirror that showed the now pale faces of the team.
“Rich,” Fr. Anthony seemed to be reciting something from a book, and was talking to no one in particular, “Very rich family, with money and properties all over the world. Once a ruling family that brought down an iron fist, but were unseated by peace and prayers.”
“The story’s longer than that,” Syl talked to her camera, “And bloodier.”
She sat at the back with the brothers and John, her camera held up to the windows. She watched the trees closely, nodding, humming low, and then taking a shot with no flash.
“I’m fighting not to look at your display,” Bradley could no longer control the shaking in his voice, “And I hate to ask this, but: did you catch anything?”
Syl took another shot, “Nothing except trees and light and a cat, I think,” she gave him a sidelong glance before taking another shot, “You can do post-processing later if you like. Tell me if you find something. Or… If something finds you.”
“Oh ha ha,” Bradley glared at her.
Landon laughed low, his eyes on his hands. He had never looked outside since they had left the highway.
“Better start praying, then,” he spoke, as they hit a bump on the road, “This isn’t like the school case at all.”
“I know,” John put in, eyes never leaving the line of trees, “There’s no one out there.”
“Surprising,” came from Agnes, in the second row, where she sat next to Peter, “I thought we’d have everyone who died when his grandfather was in power.”
“Agnes,” was the groan from the front, from the priests.
“I’m sorry,” Agnes’ voice came through, hard and flat, stinging in the cold, “Not a big fan of the dictatorship.”
“Nobody is,” Peter said quietly, “But we can’t let that hold us back.”
Agnes acknowledged him with a glance. “I wish I hadn’t come along for this part of the trip.”
“That’s not an option,” Peter retorted, tone harsher than usual.
“Better than forcing myself to live a lie,” Agnes’ reply was swift; then, with a bitter murmur, “Unlike these people.”
“We can insult them to their faces,” Syl offered.
“I like that,” John’s voice had a hint of a smile in it.
Agnes reached back and gave both the students noisy high fives.
“This is as much an exercise in forgiveness as it is a research project for the Vatican, Agnes,” Fr. Anthony’s voice glided but pierced through the cold, “I know you are angry at what this family has done, but they have prepared for this for days, and they are penitent. Tonight, we must be merciful and show this young man some compassion.”
Syl and John exchanged quick jokes in the back. The words “shading” and “Twitter” kept getting thrown in, followed by laughter that stretched all the way to Agnes.
“All I know about this family is that someone famous in it has tons of…well,” Bradley cut himself off as he reached down to tie his shoes.
“There are lots of stories and books,” John added, “But there’s a lot of recent stuff. You just need to look for it online.”
“We can also tell you about it,” Syl seemed bright with excitement, “I have screenshots saved somewhere.”
“Guys,” Peter kept his eyes on the line of trees outside the window, “Mercy. Compassion.”
Fr. Matteo checked on the laughing trio of John, Syl, and Agnes. He adjusted the rearview mirror, then looked back again. Bradley and he exchanged glances.
“We’ve lost the seraphic guard,” Fr. Matteo said, which quieted the tittering immediately. He watched as Agnes paled in the yellow light of the evening, “They’re back there, at the gates. Big and ugly advanced party. Didn’t want to tell you about it, but there it is.”
“Do I at least have Sher– my guardian angel?” Agnes’ voice was faint.
Fr. Matteo looked at the side mirrors this time, “I see something but I’m not sure. John?” The priest quieted the low whispers among the documentors in the back of the van, “No souls? None at all? Not even strays? Curious ones? Visitors? Passing through?”
John shook his head, “I haven’t seen anyone since we got off the highway, Father.”
“All right,” Fr. Matteo checked all the mirrors before speaking again, “Eight angels, enough for all. No big moves, everyone. Stay close.”
Agnes took a deep breath, patting the students’ hands as they landed on her shoulder, “No problem, Father,” and, with her hands on her notebook and a pen, “Just tell us what to do.”
“Don’t go wandering off,” Fr. Matteo’s voice was calm, steady, “And when we get there -”
“If we get there,” Fr. Anthony said, before Fr. Matteo could finish.
All the murmuring and work stopped immediately.
“A mango tree with the same sign telling us we have a kilometer to go,” Fr. Anthony’s tone was almost careless, “I’ve seen it three times now.”
“Maybe we missed a turn,” Peter put in, “Or the trees and signs all look alike.”
Fr. Anthony was quiet for a moment. He allowed the van to go for a few more kilometers before he spoke again. A mango tree with the sign “Payeaux – 1 KM” soon came into view, before disappearing into the darkness behind them.
“I may be old,” the priest said, “But I am not blind.”
The group stopped fussing and followed Landon’s command to pray. Even Peter was muttering, his hands on a laptop, his eyes following the line of trees that continued to march past the van. There were no landmarks on his side of the road. There was only thick foliage, and then darkness beyond. He sometimes looked at Agnes, whose presence next to him seemed to seethe with gentle anger.
“I don’t like them either,” he said, low.
Agnes managed a tiny, mischievous smile, “We of a certain age all together.”
His eyes left the trees, and then settled on her, “I know you’re angry,” his voice was even lower now, “But you can’t let this get to you.”
“I know,” Agnes replied, meeting his gaze, “I just can’t keep it bottled up or I’ll be feeding a whole other zoo of pests.”
Peter could not help smirking, “Let’s just keep the unbottling to a minimum,” and, when something dark seemed to cover Agnes’ face, “You’re a target and we all promised to keep you safe.”
The shadow passed, “We’re all targets,” Agnes turned to face the trees again, cheeks redder this time, “We all have towers with souls and we’re being used for pillage practice.”
“Let’s just not get into trouble.”
“I know,” Agnes nodded, eyes still averted from Peter, cheeks never losing their color.
Peter tapped his fingers on the laptop, as though throwing off a shrug. When Agnes did not resume their conversation, he looked at his watch. “Six PM,” he announced.
“I’m hungry,” Syl and John chorused, in high whispers.
“We’ll be there soon, and we’ll eat before we do anything,” Fr. Anthony called out from the front, “And if all else fails, we can stop the van when we see the mango tree, get out, climb it, and eat a snack.”
No one knew whether it was a joke or a reprimand, and no one spoke up. Fr. Matteo alone had the courage to laugh low, only to stop himself abruptly as the said mango tree and its mocking sign passed by the van again.
“Dark for this time of the year,” Bradley’s voice was almost a squeak. And, when Landon nudged him to be quiet, “We can totally wait for dinner later.”
And, when no one said anything more, Bradley returned to praying.
The van rolled on, upon roads rough with pebbles that seemed to slap and clap against the metal underside of the van. No one seemed to breathe, as they watched the darkness fall back against their light, and as they waited for the mango tree to roll past their windows once more.
They had already glimpsed the house through the trees an hour before. They had already seen its windows and lights, its wood and shadows. The way forward simply kept on going.
No one spoke for a long time.
“Well, then,” Fr. Anthony finally broke the silence, as the light sliced through the trees, and as the van shook beneath the weight of a fresh blast of cold, “We’re here. Good job, everyone.”
What seemed to be a welcoming house from afar was a glaring fortress now. There were lights at every window, but they cast no glow over the newcomers to the estate. A wooden balcony wrapped around the second floor of the house, sending shadows of its bannisters across the night, slicing through the evening as though an invisible knife were cutting though the light and allowing the darkness through. The way to the house was smooth to the sight, but the van gurgled its protest as it came nearer, as though it were being forced to travel over rocks and clay, as though a thousand hands were holding the wheels weakly back. The engine sputtered; the van died.
The team greeted the sudden quiet with low prayers.
“We have a thin guard,” Fr. Matteo announced, breaking through the chorus of loud swallows, “I don’t see anything else. John?”
“Nothing,” was the uneasy answer from the back, where John began to stash his things under his seat, “I haven’t seen anything or anyone, Fr. Matteo.”
“Anything about the house at first glance, Bradley?” Fr. Matteo did not leave his place.
“Nothing different,” Bradley answered, then added, almost in a whisper, “Your turn, Syl.”
Syl had been taking photos again since they had rolled into the driveway. She shook her head as she reviewed her shots, “Nothing new. It’s dark and unhappy from all angles so far. And no,” she smiled briskly at Bradley, “I haven’t caught anything.”
“Cool,” Bradley retorted, smile flat, “Tell me when you do.”
Syl still held her camera up. Her eyes went from the first floor, to the second, as though she were measuring windows and doors and the hallways within.
“Are they up there?” She pointed to one window, addressing no one in particular. Eight heads looked up in time to see a shadow cross the curtains, then the window open and close with a thin, sharp bang. There were loud footsteps throughout the second floor, and they continued all the way down wooden steps within the house.
The front door was unlocked from within. It swung open, but there was no one to greet the people in the van.
“All right,” Fr. Matteo unlocked his door, “We travel as a group. We go straight in. Take all the readings and photos you want now, and then we resume work inside the house.”
The group nodded, wordless. A few made the Sign of the Cross. Peter lifted the laptop, and then motioned to the group in the back to open the door.
They all exited the van quickly, and met an evening breeze thick with despair. There was no other word for it: there were no crickets to stir the trees above, no chirping bats, no buzz from the insects in the forests beyond. The breeze seemed to come from far away, to push against the people who dared trespass on the property, to beat back the stars. The house ate everything that dared come close.
The team made for the open door, with the priests leading the way. At the very end of the line were Bradley and Landon, who talked about their setup. They were already deep in discussion about where to put the cameras when the door slammed shut behind them, and the lights came on.
“Great,” Landon clutched the cameras closer to his chest, “We’ll need to fasten these guys with a crap ton of bull clips and hold the computers down with bricks.”
“Plenty of those in this house,” Agnes was visibly fighting not to gasp at the receiving area in which they had found themselves. The house was old, but it had lost none of its sheen, none of the polish that so characterized the houses of the extremely rich. The wall panels gleamed brightly, shining in the midst of old photographs, glass decorations, and an array of mirrors. Sofas and wooden chairs stood in corners, appearing far less comfortable, far more threatening than they were perhaps meant to. Above the visitors was a chandelier, sparkling with rainbows as light tore through individual crystals. The light cast rainbows on the wood and brick of the walls, teasing shadows out of dark corners, failing to do anything but mock the newcomers.
There were glass displays filled with crystal decanters and bowls, plates and saucers, all of then clinking with the stress of an unfelt earthquake. There was even a whole cabinet that showcased a variety of wines and spirits, with bottles and ewers that craned imaginary necks, like an audience watching the team.
“Look, kids!” John’s voice broke through the thick air of the house, “Our parents’ taxes on display!”
“It’s just like a museum of suffering!” Syl imitated his fake interest, adding a sweep of her hand toward the liquor cabinet, “With nice things, like wine!”
“Bordeaux 1971, Petrus Pomerol,” Bradley read the label of the nearest bottle.
“Dry,” Agnes pronounced, all vitriol returning, “Just like my sympathies for this family.”
“That’s enough, children!” Fr. Anthony reprimanded her, in a demand low but weighted, so that it carried even to the students, “We will not feed the monsters in this house.”
“Hi, I’m hungry,” a voice came from the top of the staircase, “Are you the team? Let’s have dinner first.”
No one had time to react, much less analyze the lilts and cadence of the voice. The brothers and Peter were emptying the box and taking out computers and wires; their arms froze in mid-air. The priests were marking out pages in the Roman Ritual; they stopped in mid-task. Agnes, Syl, and John were fighting not to trade more jokes; they followed the direction of the voice, and, as a group, shrank back.
There was a boy there, standing on the steps, in a clean, dark shirt and blue jeans. They knew him from his photographs online, where people worshipped and praised him, where he sneered at those who openly showed contempt for his family, and where people often disregarded his background in favor of the boyish face that stared back at them, seemingly begging for sympathy.
He was no older than twenty-five, hair and eyes dark with grooming, cheekbones high, jaw defined. His skin glowed, seemingly pulled back to hide any marks of age. Had he been anyone else, from another family, with a greater dose of humility and remorse, with far less obvious acknowledgement of his pedigree, he would have been handsome. But there is no objectivity when history speaks louder than the beauties of the present.
“I think these are our visitors, mother,” the boy spoke again, voice calm, attention directed to someone higher up in the house, “Go heat that chicken and vegetable soup you asked everyone to make earlier, will you?”
There was scuffling and scrambling upstairs, and a woman’s voice broke through. She called for servants, screamed for her son to go back to his room, then told him to wait on the stairs, for she would be in panic if anything, anything at all befell him, so would he please stay in his room so she could call the servants?
The boy smiled at the newcomers, winked at Syl, and ran back upstairs.
Agnes cupped her hands and held them under Syl’s mouth.
“Ma’am?” Syl raised an eyebrow.
Agnes grinned, “Just in case you need someone to catch your vomit.”
Syl groaned, one hand to her face.
“He’s not himself,” Fr. Matteo cut in before Fr. Anthony could scold anyone, “I can’t see his guardian angel anywhere. No jokes from you, Agnes. Or you, John.”
John held up his hands, “I only wanted to say that I don’t see anyone here,” and, from the side of his mouth, directed to Syl, “Yuck. You need to get yourself dry cleaned.”
“Shut up,” Syl’s hand had not left her face, “I’m already getting indigestion and I haven’t even had dinner yet.”
“Guys,” Peter did not look up from his work on the monitoring equipment, “That’s enough. Leave the kid alone. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
“But what if he does?” John mouthed to Syl.
“Ew,” Syl winced, “Wish I’d taken a photo.”
“Documentation,” Syl checked her camera’s batteries, “I felt that I should have. He looked lucid.”
“Like he just came from confession?”
“Actually – I was about to say no.”
There would have been fresh protest from both Peter and Fr. Matteo, and even a sneer from Agnes, had someone not run downstairs. The team looked up from its work to find a woman, hair fixed in a haphazard bun, her plain white shirt and pants showing signs of having been worn for days. She was panting by the time she reached the receiving area and made for Fr. Anthony’s side.
“I am so sorry that you were kept waiting,” she took both his hands, and raised his right hand to her forehead, “The servants weren’t answering when I called. The phone lines might be down. Or the doctor is with them and they’re all gossiping. Or they might be eating and they’re not paying attention. Thank you so much for coming. My son needs all the help he can get. If only these servants would cooperate!”
Fr. Anthony had appeared soft at first, and had even watched the mother as though he meant to protect her from the onslaught of sneers she would get from John, Syl, and Agnes. But as the mother spoke on and on, and as she chided her servants with a sigh and a grunt to match, so did his blue eyes grow cold, and harden into ice.
“I will ask the servants to heat up your dinner,” she paid no attention to the rest of the team, save Fr. Anthony, “I am very sorry, but my husband cannot be here tonight.”
“Madame,” even Fr. Anthony’s tone became biting, piercing, “We thank you for your courtesy, but I am afraid that your entire family has to be here.”
The mother’s eyebrows came up for the first time since she had greeted the priest, “And I also hope that you understand, father,” she did not even acknowledge the rest of the group, “My husband is a senator, and therefore a very busy man.”
“Has your son at least fasted?” Fr. Anthony countered, bright blue eyes never blinking, “Has he gone to church these past few days and received Holy Communion? The sacrament of penance and reconciliation?”
The mother gasped, but more so, it appeared, at Fr. Anthony’s audacity rather than in surprise over something for which she had been remiss.
“We have not had the time and the means!” And, when both Fr. Matteo’s and Fr. Anthony’s eyebrows flew upward, “My husband himself insisted on helping our son, but you must understand that my husband is a senator-”
“And is therefore too busy to come to the bedside of his only child who is now in mortal danger,” Fr. Anthony finished for her.
“My son is perfectly capable of doing many things on his own!” tumbled out of the mother’s mouth.
“Which is why your husband personally begged the Vatican to help, is it not?” Fr. Anthony replied, just as the mother took a step back, wordless, and disappeared into the kitchen. The rest of the group heard her take heavy steps from the house, and then out of it, on her way to the servants’ quarters, and to seemingly order them to heat up soup for the one person on whom she had vented her attention.
When Fr. Anthony turned back to the team, he caught John, Syl, and Agnes ready to applaud him.
“Not another word,” he addressed them all with one finger held up, for even the brothers and Peter had not returned to connecting the computers yet, “This family needs our prayers and compassion, not our judgement.”
Fr. Matteo cleared his throat, “Can we still do the exorcism tonight?”
Fr. Anthony drew a long, labored breath, and thought for quite a while before he gave a response.
“If there is a manifestation,” he spoke slowly, “And if there is an immediate need, then we must meet that need.”
“He’s not prepared,” Fr. Matteo replied.
“If our conversations earlier were any indication, then some of the members of this group are not prepared for this either,” Fr. Anthony retorted, eyes going from Syl, to John, then to Agnes, “But we will do what we can for a family that needs our assistance.”
All whispers ceased immediately. No one dared to breathe as Fr. Anthony began pointing at team members, and as the air around them crept with a sharp, piercing cold.
“Landon, Bradley, you boys will need to finish setting this all up before the mother returns. I need you both to come upstairs with me to show the family where you will place the sensors and cameras. Talk slowly. They’re not the listening type. They have not told us the whole truth about this case and will therefore be on the defensive.”
The boys nodded as they calibrated their equipment. They exchanged low whispers as their computer screens flickered on, showing temperature and pressure measurements in the room.
“Peter, you and I can wait for the doctor. We will examine the young man together. We will need to be patient. Do try to calm the mother down, Peter.”
Peter nodded as well. He had long finished helping the brothers, and was already getting his notebook ready. He was watching Agnes and the students too, as they stood in a corner and awaited instructions. In particular, he looked at Fr. Matteo, then Agnes, then Fr. Matteo again, as though waiting for the sign that the priest could see her angelic guard.
“Matteo, check the downstairs rooms before you follow me. John can help you. Pray. When you are done, you – only you, Matteo – can join us upstairs.”
John met Fr. Matteo’s eyes. There must have been a good deal of mischief in John, it seemed, for Fr. Matteo shook his head briskly, as though giving an order for the boy to avoid all joking or protest immediately.
“Everyone else: stay here and do not venture upstairs,” was the order from Fr. Anthony, as Agnes and Syl gathered their notebooks, only to freeze in place at his words, “We have fed these monsters long enough. If the boy’s father is not here, then we shall feed even more monsters, and we cannot risk anything now. We do not know if his life is in graver danger than we were first led to believe. We will not play word games. Do you understand me?”
The last question was directed almost exclusively to Agnes, who could do none but put her things down, nod, and sink into a chair next to Bradley. If she had any urge to fight, she kept it fairly well; if anything, she appeared ready to melt into the wall behind her.
“It’s all right, ma’am,” Syl sat by Agnes’ side, “We were all noisy. Don’t feel guilty.”
“Well read, young Padawan,” Agnes said, eyes to her notebooks, “Not sure what we’ll do now aside from pray.”
“You could help us with the readings,” Landon offered, from across Bradley, “We need someone to monitor files, just so we save everything.”
“We need someone to do post-processing, too,” Bradley added, “I’m looking at you, Syl.”
“Oh, ha ha,” Syl glared at him.
The brothers quickly took to gathering their cameras as Fr. Anthony came to the table. He gave the boys a single nod of his head, muttered that Syl should store her photographs in a safe place, and, upon arriving at the now quiet Agnes, took a chair and sat down.
“I know that you do not like this family, Agnes. No one in our group does,” Fr. Anthony added quickly, as Agnes opened her mouth, “But I need you to set these emotions aside for the moment. Or better yet: acknowledge them and pray for enlightenment. Your students look up to you, and with your calm, they might be calmed as well.”
The last sentence was spoken lower, with Fr. Anthony’s head bowed closer to Agnes’, and his voice directed away from Syl. At his distance from the professor, Fr. Anthony could feel the full brunt of Agnes’ resentment. His blue eyes blazed still, and the smile he had once shown the team so freely seemed to be in danger of permanently not returning.
“I cannot allow you in the room upstairs,” Fr. Anthony finished, standing up, “You can interview the mother later, and perhaps talk to the boy as well. But not before we minister to him.”
Agnes met Peter’s eyes across the room. He gave her a low nod, as though acknowledging that he had asked the old priest to talk to her.
“Yes, Father,” Agnes’ eyes seemed to glass over with tears.
Fr. Anthony was quick to lay his hand on her head, “Your anger is strong, but your soul is stronger,” he gave her dark hair a quick, comforting pat, “And you, of all people, cannot be put in danger. There is something in this house that has been fed with denial, but it feeds, too, on anger and hatred. We will not give it what it wants.”
There was a snarl from somewhere, and everywhere at once.
John shook his head at Fr. Anthony.
“Stay here,” Fr. Anthony said, to no one in particular, “Don’t move and don’t leave, no matter what happens.”
Fr. Anthony put on a dark purple stole, as did Fr. Matteo.
Another snarl. This time, the entire house shook, sending down clouds of dust from the ceiling.
And then came a voice, speaking in what sounded like an old language that gathered anger and pain as the words unfolded.
Fr. Anthony was about to translate, but Fr. Matteo had already rushed upstairs. Peter attached his microphone to his ear, and was about to follow, when Landon called him back, tossed him a camera, and gave the instructions through the storm of black and white clothes that suddenly blazed into the room. There was the mother, screaming for her son as she climbed the stairs with pounding steps. And there was the doctor, introducing himself hastily to Peter, and lugging bags of medicines and equipment that clanged and clattered as he ran.
“Change of plans, kids. Let’s hope we don’t need to go upstairs,” Landon quieted the room, motioning to John to sit by his side, “Let’s pray and not hate anyone. And let’s drink water, too.”
Landon reached down and retrieved water bottles, which he passed around. The screen before him flickered to life just as he opened his bottle and took a large, gurgling gulp of water.
“Come on, Peter,” Landon tapped one foot noisily, “Come on, Bluetooth.”
The footsteps seemed to crowd and pound on the floor directly above the team downstairs. The members could not help looking up as they took seats, set notebooks aside, and waited for the displays to come to life.
“Let’s just all be nice, behave, and be good kids,” Landon’s voice shook with both adrenaline and unease as he handed John a headset, “Sit tight and behave or the lady over there gets a conniption.”
“The lady over here will give you a conniption if you’re not careful,” Agnes echoed his accent, so that John put the headset on and sank back as far as he could into the chair.
“Oooh,” Bradley sang mockingly, “Scary angry professor on the loose. Watch your grades, younglings!”
Landon laughed low, adjusting volume and display settings on his laptop.
“I’ll run over your grades and grind your dreams to dust,” Agnes made her own mocking song, so that Syl and John met eyes from across the table, “And you’ll pray like you’ve never prayed before.”
Bradley loosened one ear from the headset, “She’s not really like this, is she?”
Syl shook her head, smile wide.
“Poser,” Bradley snorted at Agnes.
“And we’re on,” Landon announced, just as Agnes clapped a rolled up sheet of paper on Bradley’s shoulder, and as John and Syl began to laugh, “Let’s calm down and get this started. Display?”
Bradley tapped out a string of code, allowing the feed to come into focus, “Display is clearing up slow and we’ve got color on. Audio?”
“Up and running and waiting for feed,” Landon took another drink of water, “Silence on the floor unless we need translations and confirmation. Temperature on. Recording?”
Bradley typed out a few more codes and made a few more adjustments before he spoke again, “Recording starts on Agnes’ command.”
All five team members leaned forward and watched the displays.
The camera was perched high up in a corner, covering the entire room, save some parts of the floor. The team downstairs now saw the young man sitting on the edge of his bed, back straight and to the camera, hands grasping the sheets beneath him. Before him sat Fr. Anthony, on a wooden chair, one hand fitting a microphone to his ear; behind him stood Fr. Matteo, the Roman Ritual open in his hands, his microphone already attached and adjusted. Peter sat in a corner barely covered by the camera. Near him stood the mother and the doctor. Their heads were meeting in low conversation, but the mother appeared angry, resistant, as though ready to argue and spring out of the bounds of conversation.
“Thank you, Peter,” Landon spoke into the microphone, “Hold up three fingers on your left hand if you hear me loud and clear.”
Peter laid his right hand on the mother’s arm to quiet her, and held up his left hand to the camera, just as Landon asked him.
“I believe an angry woman here has further instructions on what fingers to hold up and to whom,” Bradley called out, so that everyone around him (except Landon) laughed, “But we’ll reserve that for later, so well done, Peter.”
Peter motioned to the camera, as he perhaps heard all the crackles of laughter and static over his earpiece.
“Ignore that last one,” Landon groaned, “Disobedient children in the house, nothing to see here. And you,” Landon addressed his brother, “Keep the lines to Fr. Matteo mute until we silence this here lot.”
The laughter died away, as the remaining team members watched the goings on. Peter, the doctor, and the mother were still discussing something, and the camera could pick up only murmurs from their conversation.
“Testing, Fr. Matteo,” Bradley spoke low as he made the sign of the cross, and as he opened audio feeds, “If you can hear us, please nod to the camera. Thank you.”
Everyone watched as Fr. Matteo obeyed.
“We’re opening all lines now. Silence, everyone,” Landon motioned to his brother, as he clicked and pointed to different buttons on his display, “We’re all listening in, and you’ll hear everything we say. So just in case you need help or documentation or translation or translation confirmation or persuasion for the young man to undergo an exorcism even if he is apparently neither properly nor adequately prepared – we are ready and at your command.”
“Don’t send anyone up,” came clear, and from Fr. Matteo’s microphone.
“Noted,” John answered.
“Stay where you are.”
“And no praying yet.”
“That’s not Fr. Matteo,” John interjected, standing up, then finding himself pulled back into his seat by Landon. Before them, the screen flickered, white flakes and black stripes alternating against static, the figures of mother, priests, doctors, and young man mixing into a mess of varying grades of grey. John made the Sign of the Cross, on Landon’s prompting. The feed cleared again.
“What was that?” Fr. Matteo and Bradley said, almost together.
“We’re not sure, Father,” Bradley checked the recordings, “You just told us not to pray.”
“I said no such thing,” Fr. Matteo retorted, almost angry, “All I heard was screaming.”
Peter looked up at the camera immediately, “Get ready.”
John and Syl both looked at Agnes, who, in turn, seemed to spring to action. She had been bubbling over with nerves a few moments before. Now, her eyes focused, and she seemed to draw all the air around her into herself, but without losing the light that cast the room in the same golden, shadow-crumpled glow.
“All right,” was all she said, voice now steady, “Recordings start now. Nothing goes off the record. Do we have verbal consent from the mother?”
“Yes, confirmed verbal consent,” Peter answered, eyes at the camera as though he were talking directly to Agnes.
“That was easy,” John muttered.
“Your job isn’t over,” Peter retorted, “You’re on standby. The kid isn’t cooperating. You might need to talk to him through me.”
“Maybe Syl should do it,” Agnes whispered, nudging Syl, who promptly glared at her. Then, when the static on the screen started again, “What’s he saying, Peter?”
Peter nodded once, listened to the conversations behind him, and looked over his shoulder, as though to hear the boy better.
“He says his father doesn’t want this,” Peter answered, as the mother and doctor went quiet in the background, and as the priests adjusted their stoles.
“You don’t understand,” the boy spoke, louder this time, “My father will be angry when he comes and finds me like this.”
“But your father is very busy -” the mother was tender, but all pallor as the boy screamed back.
“You really don’t understand, do you, woman?”
The mother paled further, one tear rolling down her cheek at the force of her son’s voice. The priests crossed themselves and prayed in unison to St. Michael the Archangel.
“Why have you brought them here, woman?” the boy screamed, even louder, even stronger, so that the speakers trembled and shook, “You used to please my father, but now you will make him very angry.”
“Temperatures dropping slowly,” Bradley reported, “We’re probably looking at less than twenty in a few minutes. On standby, Fr. Matteo. John? See anything?”
“Nothing,” John said faintly, “Clear.”
“There – there are some things up here,” crackled from the speakers, “Stay where you are. We’re starting.”
“No!” The boy half-growled, half-screamed into Fr. Anthony’s face, “My father is on his way. My father will not suffer fools gladly – least of all you.”
The boy seemed to grow, as though he were a dog, a wolf, with hackles rising against the cold. The medical doctor clapped his hand to his mouth, and paled visibly even in the semidarkness.
“I do not want to displease my father,” the boy’s voice deepened, banged against the speakers, “He can hurt me. He can hurt you all.”
Fr. Matteo glanced all around him, then began to pray, eyes closed tightly, lips mumbling out the words. Fr. Anthony opened his copy of the Roman Ritual, read from the gospels, and motioned, with a nod of his head, to Peter and the medical doctor. The two came forward, stood on either side of the priests, and waited.
“We’re now lower than twenty degrees Celsius,” Landon reported, “Check on recordings.”
“Check. All recordings normal,” Bradley replied, pulling up windows of both images and code.
The group downstairs watched as the camera picked up the temperatures in the room. Blotches and splashes of white and blue traveled from wall to wall, bounced against the mother, hovered over the boy. The cloud of cold seemed to vibrate with the words of the Roman Ritual, to tremble with the gospel according to John.
And with the beat of the last sentence of the gospel, the cloud of white dropped heavily onto the boy.
“My father,” he spoke, nearly sang the words out into the cold air.
He stood up for a moment, then fell back onto the bed, arms spread out.
“Ah,” he stared up at the ceiling, “My father is here.”
And with the words came silence. It seemed to envelope the room upstairs in mist, to press down on the observers downstairs, to add daggers of ice to the evening air. The only sounds were footsteps, as both Peter and the doctor ran to either side of the bed and gently held the boy down by the shoulders. Even on the monitors, the doctor was visibly shaking.
“We pray for your mercy, Oh Lord,” Fr. Anthony’s voice rang loud and crisp through the cold, as he stood up, tightened his grip on his copy of the Roman Ritual, and made a slow Sign of the Cross, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
Everyone in the house watching the proceedings followed his example. The boy himself lay unmoving, eyes still focused on a point above him, mouth half open and exhaling mist.
“We beg for your mercy, Oh Lord,” Fr. Anthony went on, eyes upon the boy, “We beg Your mercy for the soul of your servant Al, whose body has been inhabited by creatures of darkness, but whose soul has always been Yours. We beg for the intercession of Your Most Blessed Mother.”
Al struggled against the holds on his shoulders, and Peter and the doctor had to fight to push him down once again.
“We beg that you ask Your Most Holy Mother, Oh Lord,” Fr. Anthony kept his eyes closed, “That she watch over this child and wrap him in the Mantle of Her Protection.”
“He’s not reading from the Ritual,” Bradley observed, checking the recordings again.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” John asked, still pushing himself into the chair.
Landon watched Fr. Anthony pray in silence before he spoke, “The ritual is a guide, and priests can sometimes add their own prayers,” he checked the recordings and made a quick backup of the files, “Let’s pray it goes well.”
The static came back on the screens, followed by a howl from Al.
“Exactly like a wolf,” Agnes remarked. And, when Syl looked at her, “Heard them before.”
Another howl answered it, this time higher, but still from Al’s mouth. And yet another howl came, much lower, so that it made the speakers vibrate in protest, all from the sounds still bursting from the same dazed boy.
The howls soon came together, in a chorus loud, long, and lingering. Fr. Matteo and Fr. Anthony were both deep in silent prayer. The mother stood in the corner, then dropped slowly to her knees, her face in her hands.
“She’s never seen it this bad before,” Landon remarked, “Oh God, I hope she prays.”
The howls blended into a dark, grating chorus.
“Non potete vincere,” a voice rose above the cold song.
“You cannot win,” Agnes translated on impulse, speaking into her microphone. She looked at Fr. Anthony, who nodded at the camera, confirming the translation. He raised his hand, as though to signal that Agnes should stop.
It was too late. “Siamo troppo molti ora,” the voices sang again, “Non l’hai preparato bene per questo, e hai aspettato troppo tempo.”
“We are too many now,” Agnes answered with the translation, “You didn’t prepare him for this, and you waited too long.”
“Il nostro padre non ci lascier`a a soffrire mai.”
“Our father would never allow us to suffer.”
“Agnes!” Peter whispered, eyes turned to the camera, “That’s enough! Don’t engage!”
The howling turned into sneers, “Il tuo paese e` pieno d’odio, e avremo tanto cibo da mangiare qua. I tuoi capi sanno come ci rendono felici.”
“Your country is full of hate, and we will have a lot of food to eat here,” Agnes faltered, “Your leaders know how to make us happy.”
“Agnes,” Fr. Anthony warned, “Fermi adesso.”
“Please, Agnes,” Peter insisted, whisper sharp.
The voice from the bed growled on in laughter, “E Pietro, dici tu quella donna disotto, chi parla questa lingua, che ci piace la sua voce, e avremo la sua anima presto. Ci vedremo in Inferno!”
Agnes did not speak another word. She simply stared at the monitor, swallowed hard, and made the Sign of the Cross. On her cheeks bloomed a blush, and she forcibly kept herself from meeting Syl’s and John’s gazes.
“Sei stata una ragazza cattiva! Sappiamo i tuoi segreti! Sappiamo chi ti piace e chi vuoi ogni notte in il tuo letto con te!”
The same voice scraped out of Al, with a laugh that bounced against the walls of the room downstairs. Peter looked up at the camera, and before long, so did Fr. Anthony, who both shook their heads .
“Agnes,” Peter’s whisper was gentle but forceful this time, “Don’t listen. Don’t translate. Don’t engage. Don’t let this get to you.”
“It said,” Agnes insisted, turning off her feed and speaking through a low sob, “Tell that woman downstairs, who speaks this language, that we like her voice and will have her soul soon. We will see each other in Hell.”
Peter must have heard her through another microphone. He lowered his head and pushed the boy down harder, grip showing as white knuckles on the monitor.
“It’s not true, Agnes,” Peter gritted the words out between his teeth, “They will not have your soul. Don’t listen. They will not have you.”
Fr. Anthony paused, then nodded at Agnes in confirmation. He crossed himself one more time, then whispered something quickly to the priest behind him.
“Don’t translate anymore, Agnes,” Fr. Matteo whispered, head still bowed, eyes still closed, “We know enough. We need you to pray.”
The girl switched her microphone on, “Yes, father,” Agnes answered.
“Yes, father, yes father!” The voice in Al mimicked, “Your team needs a confession for the ages, priest! My father would never bring his weakest soldiers into battle!”
“We remember that our God, our Heavenly Father, is ever knowing and ever present,” Fr. Anthony replied as though he carried a gust of wind, his resolve blaring against the baying of faraway hounds. He raised his bottle of holy water, and spoke as he sprinkled it over Fr. Matteo, then Peter, then the medical doctor, and then the boy.
Al screamed, like a dog being beaten, and then, after a few yelps, like a hound on the trail of its prey. His mother sank into the corner, head still in her hands, eyes wide at the scene, as though she had never seen it, as though she no longer knew the son for whom she had pleaded and fought.
“We remember the words of our Lord,” Fr. Anthony went on, sprinkling holy water quickly behind him at the spot where the mother stood earlier. She had retreated deeper into the corner, and out of reach of the camera.
Syl hummed. “Go mommy,” she spoke, low.
Bradley and she met eyes across the table. “Scared senseless,” he shrugged, but kept his eyes on Syl as Fr. Anthony read from the Gospel according to Matthew, “Or scared, period.”
Syl’s fingers tapped an imaginary beat on her camera, “Maybe,” she said slowly, “Or something else.”
Bradley’s eyes went wide, “I don’t think she’s that – well, gone, like him, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“What?” Came from Agnes, who freed one ear from the headset.
“Nothing,” Bradley’s voice seemed to push down alarm, only to come out in a croak, “Let’s – uh – pray. No interruptions.”
Syl’s eyebrows knit together for a moment. Then, with speed that made Bradley, Landon, and John all gape at her at the same time, held her camera up and took a photo of the group.
Landon turned off all the audio feeds, fingers flipping from switches to keyboard in almost invisible succession, “That was uncalled for, Syl,” he said in a high whisper, eyebrows knotted, “I’m reporting you to Fr. Anthony.”
Syl’s gaze faltered for a moment, but she kept her eyes on her camera display.
“Go ahead, Landon,” she spoke slowly, “Don’t forget to tell him that whatever is up there is also sucking in more things like it, and they’re coming through the front door.”
She turned her camera around and showed him the display. The boys appeared as three blurred heads against a sea of shadows.
John edged closer to Landon. “I didn’t notice anyone,” came out as a near whimper, “And I don’t see – feel – anything.”
Landon’s scowl eased. He clicked on the audio switches again, in time to hear Fr. Anthony begin the Litany of the Saints. The group around the computers made the Sign of the Cross almost in unison.
“Fr. Matteo,” Landon’s voice cracked over Fr. Anthony’s call to the doctors of the Church, “Syl sees more things coming in, but John doesn’t.”
Fr. Matteo nodded once, as though he had seen the entities long before Syl had captured their images, “Stay where you are,” he said, low, with an undercurrent of strain, “Open your copy of the ritual and pray. The room… Is full. I cannot see everything, but it feels crowded. Don’t do anything drastic.”
Landon glared at Syl, then Agnes.
“Sige lang, ‘noy, tawgi da sila tanan,” was the sneer from the bed, where the boy no longer moved, but simply stared at the ceiling, “Indi nyo ko mapalagyo kung kamo mismo ang nagpasulod sa akon.”
Everyone at the table turned to John as the words carved ice into the air. He trembled, pulled his jacket closer, and rubbed his palms together.
“You can call them all,” John’s translation came out in a mist, “But you can’t drive me out if you yourself invited me in.”
He glanced at Syl. She held one thumb up, hands never letting go of the camera.
“Correct – and creepy,” she whispered, then paled, as though the words had suddenly made sense.
The mother’s sobs came faintly through the speakers. Fr. Matteo laid a hand on her shoulder, but she quickly moved away, shrank into a corner, and buried her face in her hands.
Syl sprang up with a low curse.
“Oi!” Bradley turned off his audio in time with a near-shout at Syl, “No drastic moves!”
Syl did not even look back as she ran up the stairs, holding her camera at eye level. She took photograph after photograph, not missing a step, nodding as she went.
The entire table could only gasp.
“What – did she just do?” Agnes watched the stairs, one hand still to her headset, “Can I bring her back?”
Syl’s footsteps creaked through the house, pounded on the stairs, drummed over the heads of the group, and, seemingly, disappearing into the world beyond, as though she had jumped off the second floor.
“She’s on the balcony,” Landon’s eyes never left the monitor, which showed Fr. Anthony still reading from the Ritual, “Stay where you are.”
John stood up, only to be pulled down by Landon.
“But -” John began.
“I said stay here,” Landon’s voice ground into the cold, loud and round above the prayers echoing over the headsets, “Let Syl do her thing. I won’t have any more of you running around and breaking your necks.”
“What’s going on?” came from both Peter and Fr. Matteo upstairs.
“Syl’s on your floor,” Landon’s eyes went to the ceiling, as though he were listening for the girl’s footsteps, “I don’t think she’s getting into the room. We couldn’t stop her. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t let anyone else through,” Peter looked up at the camera, eyes darkening, as though he were measuring everyone’s will power from his place upstairs, “We’ll deal with the troublemakers later. Just don’t let anyone else through.”
“Crees que puede protegerio tambie`n a ella?” came in a high pitched whine, with almost sickening sweetness, from Al. He had turned to Peter, and was smiling widely, almost leering, as the words seethed through the baying of hounds and growling of cats.
Peter swallowed audibly above Fr. Anthony’s reading from the Psalms. There was something about protection, about angels, all of it lost in the snarls of animals coming from the boy’s throat.
“Don’t, Peter,” Agnes took her turn to warn him, “You don’t need to translate if the words aren’t important. Don’t engage it.”
Peter nodded at the medical doctor, and breathed deep. Fr. Anthony was calling again on all the martyrs. Behind him, the mother continued to sob.
“Estaba alli`, se`,” was the giggle from the boy, so that Peter paled, “Si has estado alli` antes. Veo que no has aprendido. Mi padre puede ser que necesite para darle una nueva leccio`n.”
Peter closed his eyes. On the monitor, his knuckles shone almost white, trembled as his hands never faltered, glowed in the yellow light of the bedroom.
“Don’t engage,” Landon gritted the biting cold between his teeth, checking all the recordings again, “Don’t do anything drastic, Peter.”
“We’re at ten degrees celsius,” Bradley reported, shaking his head as the temperature monitor beeped, “We’ve never gone this low.”
The white mist that had disappeared earlier now hovered around the bedroom.
“My father does not like your words at all,” the boy pronounced, face writhing, knees trying to twist themselves out of the joint.
In the corner, the mother continued to weep. Fr. Matteo turned around and spoke to her, his microphone failing to pick up his voice. Whatever he said made the mother shrink back into the shadows, and prompted both Landon and Bradley to shake their heads.
“Someone has to get her out of there,” Landon checked the recordings again, as the screen crackled, and as Fr. Matteo made another attempt to talk to the mother. The woman’s sob echoed loud, above the crunch of static, through Fr. Anthony’s closing of the Litany of the Saints.
“Tu culpa,” the boy screeched, head suddenly raised, eyes fully on his mother, “Todo esto es tu culpa!”
“Your fault?” Peter looked at the mother, then at the camera, “Her fault?”
“Puedes llorar todo lo que quieras,” the howls continued, “pero esto es tu culpa!”
Peter watched Fr. Matteo, words coming out one by one, dreading the end of the sentence, “You can cry all you want, but this is all your fault.”
Fr. Matteo did not even look up or open his eyes. He simply nodded in silence, confirming the translation.
Bradley and Agnes exchanged glances.
“I don’t know,” Bradley spoke up immediately, as though to calm any speculation from Agnes, “Might not be literal. She could’ve neglected him as a child. Plus the dad lied about preparing themselves for this. It could mean anything.”
“We beg of You, Lord,” Fr. Anthony’s voice was louder this time, “Have mercy on this servant, whom You created as a vessel of -”
“Curses!” the boy filled the word in, then collapsed back onto the bed, laughing against the holds upon him.
The upstairs floor creaked with footsteps once again. They thundered all the way from the balcony, then to the stairs, and finally, to the lower floor, as Syl emerged from the darkness. She might have been out of breath, but she spoke clear through the sounds of protest and screaming coming from the monitors.
“Look,” she walked straight up to Landon, turned her camera around, and offered it to the boy, “Look, Landon. I took all these photos from here all the way upstairs on the balcony. Now tell me what you see.”
Landon took Syl’s camera, then clicked through the photographs. He did not speak at first; but as he went through the photographs, and as Bradley, John, and Agnes looked over his shoulder, so did he gasp, suck in his breath, and quickly adjust his microphone.
“Fr. Matteo,” Landon began, low at first, then much louder, “Fr. Matteo, it’s not just the boy. We need to get the mother out of there now.”
Fr. Matteo shook his head, “I can’t leave Fr. Anthony here,” he nevertheless crouched down next to the mother as he spoke, “I need someone to come up here and get her. We can’t interrupt Fr. Anthony.”
The priest laid his hand on the woman’s arm, but she twisted away from him, closer to the bed, nearer to her son. Fr. Anthony quickly brought up his vial of Holy Water and blessed her. Five mouths downstairs gasped as the woman shivered violently in the spray of water, as though she had been showered with ice.
Landon handed the camera back to Syl. The display showed a photograph of the room, but this time from the balcony. There was Al, held to the bed by Peter and a pale, wide-eyed doctor. There were the priests, backs to the window, heads bowed in prayer. There was the mother, kneeling on the floor.
And, in the midst of golden light was a mix of shadows and mist, swirling into the room from the door, seeping into the photograph from its edges – all of it seemingly wreathing the mother, surrounding her, so that she appeared to be grappling with a storm shaped both within and without.
Not a single wisp of mist touched her, but she seemed to be cloaked by it, as though she were weaving it into being.
Bradley cursed under his breath, “She really is that far gone,” he said, shutting off his microphone, “This isn’t going to end tonight, guys.”
Agnes took another look at the photograph over Syl’s shoulder. Her eyes traveled back to the monitors as Al screamed, and as the mother held both hands to her chest, as though grasping the pain there.
“I am so sorry,” she sobbed, “I didn’t know. I am so sorry.”
Agnes was surprised at two things: her sudden sympathy for the woman, and Peter’s angry glance at the camera. She had seen his emotions hardened and smoothed out earlier that evening. For some reason, it was her resistance that broke first.
Fr. Anthony motioned for Fr. Matteo to lead the woman out.
“Please, please have mercy on my son!” The woman nearly fell at Fr. Anthony’s feet, “He’s all I have!”
Agnes breathed easily now, her focus never wavering, as she watched Fr. Matteo lead the woman to the door. On the bed, the beings within Al laughed like drunken hyenas.
“And he’s all we have!” Was the giggle from Al, “And you’ll have nothing, just the way you’ve always known it would all end, you stupid, stupid woman!”
Agnes removed her headset and marched to the staircase before anyone at the table could stop her. She expected Landon to scold her, or Syl or John to rush after her, but no such thing occurred.
“I’m getting her,” she called back, as she reached the steps, “Tell Fr. Matteo.”
There are demons that fill out empty hearts, played suddenly in her head. And there are those that hollow them out with the illusion that they are being filled.
Agnes shook the words out of her head. She heard Landon talking to Fr. Matteo, and reassuring the priest that Agnes was prepared for whatever task lay ahead.
And there are demons of loneliness, Agnes thought, seeing the towers on the plains in all their grayness and strength and isolation. Sherwood must have spoken the words to her once.
She walked slowly, drew air into her lungs, carefully took each step as she measured her hunger against the work that still needed to be done. She felt no headache coming on; only something in her heart that told her that there was suffering in the room upstairs, that it had gone on for years, that human frailty and weakness could be passed on, and its payments made by generations to come. Compassion was its own sacrifice.
Agnes stopped. Something told her she was straying into dangerous territory.
“I am powerless,” she whispered to herself, “I am only the mouthpiece and the vessel. I have no power of my own.”
From within the bedroom, Al screamed.
“You ok there, doc?” Bradley called out.
Agnes nodded, even if the team downstairs could not see her.
“I need Your guidance and strength and mercy, Oh Lord,” Agnes crossed herself, trembling as she walked into a blast of cold.
Again, a scream, followed by a howl. Agnes’ breath came out in a thick, white mist. She could hear Landon’s reports on the temperature of the bedroom.
“Wow,” John spoke, but his voice seemed to be muffled by the cold, “I hope nobody gets sick. That’s almost like winter.”
“Almost – Agnes will tell you it’s a Midwest spring. The Scot in me says you’re a sissy because it’s still summer,” Bradley joked, so that Agnes could not help laughing, “But no one’s shivering. It’s really cold but no one feels it.”
Agnes breathed a blast of air out. She could not feel the pain of cold – and she knew what that pain was like – but out it came, doing no more damage than a sharp scrape of her nostrils.
When she reached the second floor, she found the door already open, and Fr. Matteo standing with the mother. Against the light of her son’s room, she appeared like any mother in anguish, with body bent beneath the weight of guilt, hair entangled with sweat and tears, eyes to the ground. In the room beyond was silence, save for Fr. Anthony’s reading from the gospel according to Luke.
The mother trembled, lost control over her fingers, clutched at her chest as though winter lived there.
“I’ll take it from here, Fr. Matteo,” Agnes spoke, surprised at how smooth her voice was.
Fr. Matteo smiled, warm against the mother’s frost. Agnes saw how tired he was, and how the energy seemed to be spilling out of him, as he watched the air and floor surrounding the mother.
“We’ll call you when we need you, madame,” he addressed the woman. Agnes saw Fr. Matteo nod, then bow slightly to something next to her. She hoped – from the priest’s bow, knew – that he was saluting Agnes’ guardian angel.
The mother saw nothing, noticed nothing. She simply wiped a shaking hand across her face. Agnes glimpsed the shadow of a scapular and rosary underneath the woman’s shirt.
“Please follow me,” Agnes spoke, as soon as Fr. Matteo left and returned to the exorcism, “My name is Agnes. I know you want to be with your son, but we need to talk first.”
The woman looked at her this time. And this time, Agnes saw a resigned sadness, as though the woman had accepted a fate she had feared for so long.
“He’s never been like this,” she croaked, sob grating against her throat, “This is the worst he’s been. I should be there -”
“No,” Agnes did not mean to be stern, but out the words came, in a torrent that seemed to slap the mother into consciousness. Thankfully, the woman did not object, “Let’s talk. Fr. Matteo will call you back when you’re needed.”
Something pounded in her heart, then in her ears, in low warning.
“Let’s talk,” Agnes gestured to the stairs, thanking her guardian angel inwardly for the reminder, “Your son will be all right. The priests know what to do.”
The exorcism took only a few more minutes, but the conversation that followed between Agnes and the mother took the better part of an hour. They sat in the kitchen, nursing cups of soup, sitting in wooden chairs that faced a window deep with the darkness of the forests of the estate.
The mother still shook, but she accepted no offer of jackets from John or Bradley. She simply led the way for Agnes, pulled out the chairs, picked the cups from their perches above a central table, ladled soup into two cups, and set the cups down.
She shook through the entire process. Even her voice trembled. But when Agnes finally sat down next to her, and when the girl lifted her own cup to her lips, the mother’s voice took on strength and roundness absent of all unease.
“I have never seen him like this,” she drank soup, sniffing as her tears fell into her cup, “I am so sorry. We should have prepared, but I – we were just so scared that we wanted it all to end immediately. Please don’t – don’t tell anyone.”
Agnes knew what the mother meant. Don’t tell the media. Don’t let news about this leak out. This will be a national embarrassment.
But you’re already an international embarrassment – Agnes’ sneering thoughts crept in. She successfully clamped her mouth shut.
“The priest – the bishop said that someone on the team needs to interview me,” the mother looked out into the forest, “I hope that’s you.”
“It is,” Agnes nodded, following the woman’s gaze. She saw nothing but darkness and trees, heard nothing but the faraway sounds of the exorcism still going on upstairs.
“Good,” it was relief rather than pride that came out of the mother, “I can’t talk to the other men. And – you’re older. I can tell. You’ll understand me.”
At any other time, Agnes would have taken offense. But something in the mother’s tone made her simply sit and listen. She pulled the recorder out of her pocket, set it on the table before them, and started the routine.
The mother gave verbal consent for the interview without even being asked. She answered the questions for the record with eyes on the darkness beyond the windows, her mouth never too far from the rim of her cup. She shook at times, as though it took effort to simply stand upright; but when she finally allowed the words to spring forth from her, out the story came, punctuated by her knuckles shining white as they gripped the cup’s handle. There was not a single tear, even as her voice broke a few times.
Agnes found the questions gliding out of her, as though the scene had been played before, as though she and the mother had simply met over a steaming bowl of chicken soup, caught up with each other’s lives, exchanged stories, saw each other with the old eyes of friendship. Agnes knew that the mother was older than her by only a few years, but the eyes that stared out at her were thick with exhaustion, older than the woman’s almost flawless skin, filled with tension that now shrank back behind the woman’s story.
The woman had married the senator at a very early age. She had already finished her first two years of college at their provincial university. She had a dream of going to Manila, becoming a businesswoman, owning a company that would show off her province’s famed longganisa and empanada, living in her own sprawling mansion, even studying for a few more years to get her MBA. She saw how women in Manila could go to so many different places without being told that they were too free with themselves. She couldn’t go past the gate of her house without her parents fussing endlessly over her, or her guards surrounding her, or people looking at her and whispering how beautiful she was and how she would probably marry into one of the great families of the province. She was, after all, the only child of one of the province’s most prized sons. She could marry only into a family with prestige that she could carry onto her children.
One such family had already ruled the country, and had been accused – wrongly, said her parents and neighbors – of stealing from the country’s coffers and draining the people dry. That family had been exiled following a bloodless revolution, but they had returned after the storm had blown over – after people forgot about the scandals.
“People always forget when they’re well fed,” the mother mused, meeting Agnes’ eyes in their faint reflections in the window glass, “It doesn’t matter who feeds them. When they’ve gotten what they want, they’ll forget.”
Agnes felt her throat go taut. She could only nod. She saw Syl enter the kitchen from out of the corner of her eye, with Bradley, Landon, and a housekeeper on her heels. The housekeeper handed them bottles of water from the fridge, then scurried out through a back door, eyes to the ground. The three stood in a circle, drinking water quietly, their backs to the interview. Syl snuck a quick photograph before heading for the exit.
“See anything?” Agnes heard Bradley ask in a high whisper.
Syl glanced quickly in Agnes’ direction, shook her head, then motioned for the boys to leave and walk faster.
The mother had more soup as she resumed the story.
The erstwhile ruling family returned to her province, cheers heralding their arrival, newspaper headlines clamoring for justice. In the south, in Manila, justice meant imprisonment for the crimes of corruption and plunder. In her province, in the north, justice meant welcoming the family back with forgetfulness, and electing them back into provincial offices.
She didn’t know what to think then. She loved Manila, but she thought the accusations were all lies fabricated by political enemies jealous of how the ruling family had changed the country for the better. That’s what her parents had told her. That’s what her neighbors had told her. That’s what he had told her.
He was that prestigious (maybe infamous) family’s oldest son, and he had come calling but one week after the family had returned from exile. She had arrived from school then: she was done with her exams, unmindful of how she appeared, and wanting only to sink into her bed and sleep. She did not notice the parade of black SUVs in her family’s driveway, and nearly tripped over her own feet as she saw him talking to her father in their living room.
She could never measure the depths of her embarrassment then. He was her senior by a good number of years, educated abroad, clothed in the air of the extremely rich and powerful. She was in her school uniform, bedraggled by an afternoon of classes, hair and skin and feet all wearing the garb of the exhausted student. She felt like a poor provincial girl, never mind that her family was rich enough so that she and her children and grandchildren would never ever have to work.
“He’s not a handsome man, but he has his charms. I saw it all back then,” the mother smiled, eyes glassy, “I heard him tell my father that I should have been brought to Manila, even taken to the US to study. But my father said that it was dangerous – too dangerous when influential and loyal allies were being hunted down. I didn’t understand. All I heard was this young man telling my father that my dreams were important.”
Their courtship was awkward but uneventful, as most marriages are when they are all but arranged. There were visits to his house, polite kisses at the door, dinners with each other’s family, careful dodging of each other’s aunts and their probing questions (“So when are you two getting married?”). And, when the mother finished college, it was a grand ceremony at the basilica, with the province’s political and business elites in attendance.
And then came Al. They were living in Manila then, as her husband cultivated a career in politics, and while she gave up her ambitions in favor of motherhood. She was in Manila anyway, she told herself: she would give birth, and keep house, and ask the servants for assistance at all hours, and shop with her girlfriends, and love her husband, and then she could pursue her business dreams.
Manila agreed with her husband. He was voted into congress as governor, even while he did not live in his province. He was voted into congress again, this time as congressman. And then he was voted into the senate. She was always at his side, on the campaign trail, at the big parties, at the rallies and sorties. She tolerated his long hours at the office, neverending meetings, suspected affairs with secretaries and interns. She had a comfortable life, a luxurious life, a life filled with silks and chiffon and trips to Europe and fine food.
Manila didn’t quite agree with her. After Al came two miscarriages, but she knew – felt – to be truthful, guessed – her husband still loved her and they made a happy family of three and that was as good as lots of babies. She felt it – guessed it, to be truthful. Guessed.
What bothered her – really, truly bothered her – were the rumors.
She always heard them, running circles around conversations with friends, whispered when she left her favorite store with new bags and shoes in tow, tittered in the hospital corridors when Al was born.
“They called his family all sorts of names,” she sighed, this time keeping her glare to her soup, “And I felt that I had to protect him. I’m sure you know what that feels like, to protect someone. Even if he’s wrong, you don’t want him to be hurt because he’s always been good to you.”
Agnes swallowed the words before they rolled off her tongue. She did not know what the mother felt at all.
“So – once – I was so mad, so fed up,” the mother huffed, a hint of a growl playing at the end of her sentence, “I answered back, even when I shouldn’t have.”
Her husband had told her to ignore the accusations. To mind them would be to justify them, he said. And people would forget their misgivings when they saw how much he helped them. And people always forgot.
But she didn’t.
“I was at this campaign sortie once, when we came up against a wall of protesters,” the mother set the cup down, her head bowed low, “They wouldn’t let our car through, so we got out and walked.
“My husband has this technique of trying to win people over. He tries to reach out to them, and literally. He tries to shake their hands, to listen to them, talk to them if they’re screaming in his face. Most of the time, it doesn’t work. But he tries anyway.
“It was painful to me, as his wife, as the mother of his child, as someone who miscarried two of his children – it was painful to hear them screaming. ‘Your family murdered my father!’ or ‘You’re a family of thieves!’ Here was my husband, hands out, smile out, all out and pleading. And here was a chorus of ‘Your family is evil!’
“So that one sortie, when he finally walked away from the crowd, I stayed behind. And I told this old, wrinkled grandmother that his family – my family was – is – good. It wasn’t evil. I told her that if my family was truly evil, then whatever evil was truly in it would and should pass to me.”
Agnes could not help gasping at the words. She saw Fr. Anthony check on her from the kitchen door. She nodded at him, smiled. The priest nodded in response and left.
“I told her that I would take whatever curse there was,” the mother went on, this time sitting herself straight, eyes again to the forests beyond the kitchen windows, “I would absorb the evil because there really wasn’t anything to absorb. Those words – they quieted her. They made me feel – powerful. Powerful like I’d never been before, like I could help my husband in a big way.
“And that’s what I did at every sortie. I would tell anyone nearby that if there was any evil, then I hoped it would pass to me. People went quiet. They looked shocked. My words never made the news. I never told my husband. It was like a great secret, a wonderful secret power. And I had it in my hands. I was powerful and it was addictive.”
Agnes breathed deep, trying to draw blood into her now cold, numb hands. Every word that spilled forth seemed to slice icy shards into her veins. She had not asked a question in the last few minutes, and yet here was the true story, now spilling forth in all its sordid detail.
“It went on for years. I did it even in the last elections,” the mother sneered out something between a cough and a laugh, “And I thought, ‘Way to go, girl. You’re not sick and nothing bad’s happening. The rumors aren’t true’.”
But she didn’t notice Al withering away.
He was not a sickly baby. But he kept on getting sick in short, violent bursts. He would suddenly vomit all his food, become irritable, defecate all over his bed, collapse in the throes of a seizure that rolled his eyes so that you could see only the whites, cry and wail and hide himself under blankets for no apparent reason. The episodes were few and far between, but the mother could not help wondering about her son, especially when the seizures persisted well into puberty. Especially when he sometimes could not remember doing anything, saying anything, eating anything.
“So of course the doctors found nothing wrong with him,” the mother drank soup in large gulps. She stood up and filled the cup from the pot on the stove, “My parents said something about jealousy, the Evil Eye, if you will. My husband – well, you could tell that he sensed something. He moved the whole family here. He said it would be better if we all stayed away from the city, just for a year, just to calm Al. Maybe it was the stress of school, stress of elections. I mean, Al was laughed at online, offline, everywhere.”
The mother paused. Agnes looked up and found the housemaid who had entered earlier. The maid brought a tray of empty cups, stood by the stove, and proceeded to fill the cups with soup. When she left the kitchen and made for the receiving room, the story resumed.
“So we brought Al here. That was two years ago, right after the elections,” the mother spoke, “I watched over him. Took walks with him. Watched movies with him. I even tried homeschooling. My husband would always be far away, home only on the weekends, and he’d be busy with laws and documents and phone calls. So it was just Al and me.
“Al just kept getting sicker. There were times when he would snap at me, scold me, call me names. He would tell me random stories from my childhood that I never told anyone. He was suddenly speaking another language one afternoon, and when I told him to stop, a plate flew out of nowhere and nearly hit me in the face. I didn’t tell my husband that last one. I mean – what do you say? Our child is getting out of control. Our house is getting out of control. Do something. Do something on top of all your senate duties. God, do something – he’s your son!”
The mother’s tears flowed as the words poured out. She laughed softly, as though merely speaking allowed her to come to the realization that her husband had to be there to add his part to the story.
“But – to his credit – he pulled a few strings and told the bishops that we were ready and – well, here you are,” she gestured toward Agnes, then to the ceiling. The room above had been silent for a while, and the voices were coming from the receiving room. Agnes could hear everyone drinking soup, reviewing files, even addressing Al. She guessed that he had recovered, albeit with far less spirit than before. She could barely hear him.
“He’s old enough to do a lot of things,” the mother spoke, so that Agnes paid her attention again, “But he’s so far gone that I don’t know how to help him. Please – the bishops said that you had the most experienced team, and you could drive it out of him immediately, whatever it is.”
“Whatever they are,” Agnes found herself correcting the woman.
The mother’s mouth settled into an angry line.
“The team is here to investigate cases of people who have been possessed before, and even extreme cases of those possessed now,” Agnes could feel no pity, despite her effort to make her tone gentler, less combative, “And the data we have so far shows that we can’t give you what you want.”
The mother’s mouth wrinkled, as though she were about to cry or lash out, Agnes could not tell.
But a knot within Agnes eased, unwound, and broke free.
“I know you want your son to be cured,” Agnes said, as soon as she took a breath, “And I know that you want it immediately. You lied about all the preparations required because you’re tired and you want it all to stop.”
The mother nodded slowly, tears staining her cheeks again.
“But much of the effort also has to come from you and your husband,” Agnes continued, lending her voice some force, as the mother grasped her empty soup cup in one fist, “This means fulfilling the requirements of preparation. This means actually going to mass, going to confession, fasting -”
“I know you hate him,” the mother growled.
Agnes remained silent. Outside, the priests and Landon were reviewing the files of their recordings, sorting out documents, and double checking their work with Syl’s photographs. At one point, Peter had entered the kitchen. He stood in the doorway, leaning his shoulder against it, his hands crossed over his chest.
“We don’t hate him,” Agnes replied, “But we can never forget what his family did, and what he denied they did.”
“Why?” Was the challenge, ground with anger, “What did they do?”
“They plundered the country’s coffers, plunged the country into debt, put their cronies in power, bought properties at exorbitant prices with taxpayers’ money, jailed those who criticized them quietly, tortured those who criticized them openly.”
The words came fast, evenly, calmly out of Agnes. She was not blabbering, nor did she seem frantic. She simply spoke as though she were reading a grocery list. She had no apology reserved at the end of it all.
The mother, for her part, only nodded. She met Agnes’ eyes through the entire litany.
“Is that all?” The mother breathed out.
“No,” Agnes did not dare look at the doorway, for fear that the priests would soon come and drive her out, “Everything else is stated in the cases filed against them, which they also lost in international courts.”
“Believe what you want to believe,” was the low grunt.
“You, too,” was all that Agnes said.
The mother could make no reply. She simply set her cup down, laid her hands flat against the counter, and pushed hard, her knuckles wrinkling from the effort.
“I know you want your son back,” Agnes spoke, just as she saw Peter move in the doorway to let Fr. Anthony through, “But our research shows that something as far gone as this can take decades to heal. I don’t know what the bishops have been told, but nothing happens immediately with cases this serious.”
The mother sobbed, tears flowing fast, hands never leaving the table.
“And you and your husband need to help your son,” Agnes went on, hearing Fr. Anthony stepping closer, “He can’t do this alone.”
“But what if someone else put a curse on him?” The mother half-wailed, half-wept, “What if someone in the crowd did this? We’re the victims here! We’re the victims but nobody cares!”
Fr. Anthony’s voice broke through.
“Madame, people do care, and that’s why people sent us,” the priest stood behind Agnes and laid a hand on her shoulder, “We can do nothing about those who talk about you. But you can do something about the things that you do know. You and your family, madame – we all need to talk.”
The mother stopped sobbing. Her hands found the cup again. “Do you all have to be there?” She managed, still fighting not to collapse into tears.
Fr. Anthony paused, then nodded at Agnes. She stood up, stepped away from the chair, washed the cup at the sink, and took a bottle of water from the fridge. Fr. Anthony spoke only when she was near the kitchen doorway.
“We’ll talk to your husband when he gets here,” was his soothing reply, “Your whole family needs to begin at the beginning with the preparations. Whatever happens, he has to be here.”
Agnes finally left the kitchen. She felt her lungs expand with cool air as she did so.
Agnes found the rest of the team, save Peter, in the receiving room. That evening’s downstairs team gathered on the couch near the stairs. The brothers were double checking files: Landon was making copies of everything while listening to random sections of the recordings, Bradley was putting away the cameras and laptops, and the chorus of the boys’ blonde heads bobbed up and down as they checked all their wires and devices. Syl’s camera was hooked up to Landon’s computer, and she was transferring photographs while talking to John about school. John was drinking more soup while looking at Syl’s photos over her shoulder; he stopped their conversation at times, to ask her about a photo she had taken, or to cock his head to one side and fall silent, as though he were listening to someone behind him.
Al sat quietly in the seat Agnes had left over an hour before. His hair was slicked down over his brow in black strands of sweat. He kept his eyes closed, his mouth pursed in a line. There was a long, bruise-purpled wound on his shoulder, which the doctor was stitching closed; he had probably dislocated the bone at one point, so that the skin broke at the surface.
Fr. Matteo sat next to the boy, his copy of The Lives of the Saints opened to the biography of St. Francis. The priest read from it in a soft voice directed to Al, who, for his part, showed that he was listening by nodding slowly from time to time. Agnes looked at the clock on the wall. It was close to 9 in the evening.
“Hi ma’am,” Syl and John chorused from their perch on the couch.
“Have you eaten dinner yet?” Syl asked, motioning to Agnes to take a seat.
“I’ll stand for a bit, dear, thank you,” Agnes’ voice crawled out of her throat, “I had a bit of soup. You guys hungry?”
“We had soup,” John raised his cup and drank more from it.
“I had a cup,” Syl began, then said the rest in a high whisper, “But I didn’t drink a lot. Who knows where the stuff in it came from?”
John nearly choked on his soup, then quickly ducked behind the couch when Bradley and Landon looked his way.
“You ok, doc?” Bradley spoke up, looping wires around his fingers and piling them into neat layers in a box, “Whatever you did, good job.”
Agnes’ eyes widened, “I’m not sure I’d say that,” she pointed her head at the kitchen, “Mom’s mad, and I don’t know how we’ll move forward.”
“Oh, we will,” Landon smiled, “Everything calmed down as soon as you left. I wouldn’t have taken the assignment of Go Chat With Momma – and neither would those two.”
“Photos!” Syl raised her camera.
“Busy talking here,” said John, still from behind the couch.
“We’ll see,” Agnes returned Landon’s smile, only to lose it as she felt both relief and exhaustion flow into her bloodstream. She was both ready to eat a large meal and collapse into the nearest bed. Something told her to keep herself upright; that something could well have been whoever John was talking to, as she heard him say a low, “Thank you,” between several bursts of cold that stirred Syl’s hair, played among the fibers of the carpet between Agnes and the team, and swept past the professor.
Agnes watched the brothers seal their boxes before speaking again, “How is he?” She asked, her head motioning toward the table in the corner.
Bradley glanced at Al. The doctor had already covered the wound with a bandage, and Fr. Matteo had moved on to a reading from the Book of Psalms. Al had still not opened his eyes.
“Far gone and not sure how to make his way back,” Bradley stepped closer to Agnes, lowering his voice even further, “Turns out it’s the dad that took all the shortcuts, told the priests that they prepared for the exorcism, but they never really did. For some reason, the priests believed them. Mom was just closer enough to blame.”
Agnes raised both her eyebrows.
“Boy’s hardly stepped in a church, parents don’t like going because people stare at them,” Bradley went on, one hand reaching over and trying to push Agnes’ eyebrows down, “Ease it, doc. Kid doesn’t know any better.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t,” Agnes poked Bradley in the side in response, “He said all this during the exorcism?”
Bradley ruffled her hair in retaliation, “Yes, just as you left, so thank you,” he set his hair to rights, “And in Spanish, too. Fr. Matteo translated about half, but he’s – well – he’s seen too many things. He said something about not being able to breathe in that room. I wouldn’t recommend asking him.”
Agnes remembered how drawn and wan Fr. Matteo had been when she saw him upstairs, “I know,” she glanced one more time at Al, who was now wiping tears from his dirt-stained cheeks, “I’m surprised he can still talk.”
Bradley motioned to the staircase behind Agnes, “If you want more translations, ask Peter. He stepped out just before you came back in.”
Agnes turned to the staircase, and found it brighter than she remembered. She knew that it had been lit when she had climbed the stairs earlier and brought the mother to the lower floor, but something had been holding back the light then, as though the mother had built shadowy walls to seal herself in. Now, Agnes could see the carved figures on the balustrade, more framed paintings that seemed to glow with their own illumination, and a hallway past the staircase, which ended in a half-open door.
“Better go talk to him for a bit, if you’re so inclined,” Landon stepped closer to Agnes as he spoke, lowering his voice as Fr. Matteo prayed over the now weeping Al, “He hasn’t said anything since they all got back. We all tried to make him sit down and relax. Kept walking away.”
Agnes nodded, “I’ll see what I can do,” and, with a glance at the kitchen, “Holler if Fr. Anthony needs me.”
“And I’ll holler if those two creatures need some caging,” Bradley gestured with his thumb to John and Syl, who had already resumed their conversation about school while going through the photographs she had taken. “Never know when children need diaper changing.”
“Look at all these photos that need processing and indexing,” Syl said softly, but loud enough for the brothers and Agnes to hear, “We need a grownup to help us with this, John.”
“Not something that kids can handle,” John added, “I think Bradley wants to volunteer.”
“Daycare and nurseries have better behaved kids,” Bradley walked back to the computer, hand on the plug that connected it to the wall socket, “Tell me when I can interrupt the file transfer and wreck your camera storage, children.”
“And that’s it!” Landon took Agnes by the shoulders and turned her around, “Go talk to Peter before this affair turns into a TV series from which neither you nor I can escape.”
Agnes obeyed, finding a laugh emerging from her mouth. She had simply observed the exchange of jokes before her, but the exhaustion remained, pressing the energy from her body, wringing the strength out of her heart. She stepped away from the group (now giggling, as Fr. Matteo perhaps threw them a glare from across the room) and made for the door, through the smoke and mist of yellow light, through an unseen barrier of humidity and sound, and out into the semidarkness.
She found Peter sitting on steps leading down to a wide, unkempt lawn. He had his back to her, and made no acknowledgement of her presence. Agnes was too tired to think of etiquette: she stepped forward, gave a soft “hello”, and sat next to him.
Peter reached down and handed her a bottle of water. Agnes found that he had at least a dozen bottles standing on the steps, some of them empty, others still sealed.
“Thank you,” she spoke, feeling her voice scrape against her now dry throat. She uncapped her water bottle and took a long drink before talking again, “Want some soup?”
“No, thanks,” he replied, tone flat.
“What about food?” She offered, “If you’re hungry -”
“No,” came out, perhaps a little too forcefully. Peter cleared his throat and repeated the word, this time with less sternness, “No – I’ll wait – we’ll have food at the hotel when we get back later.”
“All right, but you’ve been through a long -”
“I’m not hungry, ok?”
“Right,” Agnes’ response came as gratingly as Peter’s words, and she began to stand up, “If you really want to be alone in your own island of Water Bottles and Darkness, then I’ll -”
Peter reached for her arm, grasped it tightly, but did not hurt her. Agnes finally had the chance to look at him, and see his face in the yellow light from the windows. His eyes were swollen, glassed over by water, and his cheeks had a few traces of tears. She paused, feeling new anger tightening in her chest.
“I’m – I’m sorry,” he did not hide his face now, “Please stay.”
Agnes still half-stood, half-sat, head turning slightly to the open door. There must have been something in Peter’s voice that loosened her temper: she reached back, all arms and muscles as she closed the door and shut out the noise from within the house.
The back porch was quieter, and it seemed to calm Peter. She could still see him, from the light that bobbed out the glass windows, in the faint illumination cast by the few stars that dared show themselves that night.
She sat next to him again, this time looking at him as she spoke.
“What happened, Peter?” Agnes asked, voice now low.
Peter angled his head in her direction, but did not face her, “You’re right. I’ve been through a lot,” he paused, the slight smile in his mouth fading, “I’m just not in the mood to eat.”
Agnes did not say anything. She took a drink of water, and refused the fresh bottle he offered her.
“If we were back home,” Peter put the bottle down, “I’d be talking – I’d be driving around my neighborhood, until my head’s clear or I run out of gas, whichever comes first.”
Agnes looked out into the night. The forest before them was almost completely dark, with only sparkles of starlight slicing through the foliage, with the occasional twitter of bats showing off the parts of the canopy where they made their home.
“I just wanted to be alone – but you can stay, please,” Peter added quickly, before Agnes could even think of standing up, “I thought being alone would help. But I keep hearing the voice in my head.”
It was only then that they both realized that Peter had still been holding on to Agnes. He let her arm go.
“It spoke in straight, slow Spanish, like it wanted me to understand everything,” Peter clasped his hands together, and leaned forward, his arms on his knees, “It said that everything that led us here was built on lies. There was no confession, no fasting, no church, even – the whole family doesn’t want to see people laugh or talk to them, but it wants to get rid of things that they invited.”
A bat tittered in the distance. Something heavy ran through the underbrush, on small legs with short strides. Still, there were no crickets, despite the balm of the night that lingered beneath the chill.
“And then it started talking fast. I couldn’t keep up. Fr. Matteo did most of the translation after, and – and I don’t think I will ever get that voice out of my head. Not for a very long time.”
Agnes waited. She drank a sip of water as Peter sorted through his thoughts, his hands clasped together, his eyes sometimes closing, as though he were listening to the scenes upstairs play back over and over and over in choruses that stung his heart.
“The voice – the voices said that they – the beings – the demons – they couldn’t be driven out. They called the boy their ‘honeycomb’. They already built their homes inside him, and they were making honey from his guts, his dreams, his thoughts, his grandparents’ legacy, his parents’ love. They laughed at that word. Love. They said it was love that brought them there – then they said it was pride that kept them there. Pride and a sense of power.”
Agnes nodded once.
“I see you know what I mean,” Peter sighed, shoulders slumping forward slightly.
“I know. I heard what she said.”
They watched the forest again. A single star blinked bright beyond the tapestry of branches, leaves, and shadows. A breeze swept through the trees, so that the star disappeared again. Scurries, titters, tweets and chirps – the forest stirred, played with the night, grumbled in the darkness.
“I don’t know how else to say it,” Peter shifted slightly, uncomfortable but struggling to speak nevertheless, “Nobody cursed them. She really did ask for it. Opened the doors, let them through. Can’t blame anybody else.”
The scurrying and tittering stopped. Something croaked or cawed within the trees. Agnes took another drink of water, capped her empty bottle, and reached for the new one that Peter had handed her earlier.
“I hope you don’t mind that I sat in on your interview,” Peter was almost apologetic, his head turned in full to Agnes this time, “You did really well. I wish I could just listen to her. After everything her kid said, all I wanted to do was give her a lecture on not lying.”
“I’d have done something less useful and more brutal,” Agnes grinned; and, when Peter appeared shocked, “Kidding. I’m kidding. Also, I wish this water were vodka, and I’m still kidding.”
By some miracle, Peter laughed. He laughed as he watched Agnes defend herself, laughed as he looked at his hands clasped before him, laughed as he finally leaned back, laid his hands on the wooden floor of the balcony, and placed his weight on it.
“I don’t know why that’s funny, but at least it’s better than hearing the voice,” Peter smiled, as Agnes returned his laughter with a faint “har har” and another drink of water, “Thank you. I needed that.”
Agnes smiled at him briefly, then watched the forest again.
Peter shook his head, “From dark to funny,” he laughed, “I don’t know how you guys upstairs do it, but thank you.”
“I see that my department now has a label,” Agnes’ smile had the faintest hint of a sarcastic laugh embedded in it, “Guys upstairs, like your insane siblings who need to be locked up in the attic.”
“Hey, you said it, not me,” Peter laughed softly, his eyes on the forest this time.
They sat for a while, Peter and Agnes, listening to the bats slapping their wings against the night, the trees rustling with a faint late summer wind, a stray dog howling to the sky. Peter leaned his weight on the arm closer to Agnes as the howl chilled the air.
“I don’t know how you guys can just laugh at your troubles and not go insane,” Peter spoke a little louder, as though to fight back against the cold, “It’s a gift you need when you have to fight against things like this.”
“Possession?” Agnes hugged her knees to her chest.
“Parents lying to and about their children,” Peter answered, glancing at her for a moment, “I’ve seen parents who tell me how smart their kids are, but the kids are failing at school so badly it makes an F look like an A. I’ve seen parents who tell me they have dedicated kids, who tell me that nobody has the right – let alone a professor – to say their kids are lazy. They won’t relent even when the records show that their kids were cutting classes all semester long and submitted none of their requirements. I’ve seen parents who say that their kids are kind, and they don’t believe me when I tell them that their kid got into a fistfight because a classmate didn’t want them to copy their math homework.”
“Seriously?” Agnes seethed.
“I know you full-time professors get angry at the students when they don’t meet your expectations and deadlines – but we on the part-time and administrative sides sometimes get a good look at the kids and their families,” Peter seemed to sink into a dream, as though he were actually addressing a wayward parent, “Your kid can’t live a good, independent life if you keep covering for them all the time. Your kid can’t graduate with zero homework or attendance no matter how much money you throw at us. And – well, you know what they say about lies.”
“Satan is the Father of all lies?” Agnes volunteered.
“That lies have short legs,” Peter said slowly, “But I guess what you said applies, too.”
“Especially right now.”
Peter arose from his dream, “I’m angry at them, too,” his voice was deeper, and he spoke even slower, fighting back against the temper that gnawed at his own chest, “I’ve never liked their family. Lie, cheat, steal, deny – you know it’ll all catch up with them eventually. I don’t know who annoys me more: the family, or the people that support them.”
Agnes raised her water bottle in a mock toast of agreement.
“I thought I could be calm all this time,” Peter resumed, “Be an adult, an objective researcher and psychologist, just listen to them as people. But when that voice – when it told me about all these lies they spun to get us here, and when it said that the family still lies to its grandkids about all it’s done…. If I wasn’t busy translating it all in my head, I’d be even angrier now.”
Something stirred in the forest, prompting another howl from a dog even farther away. All went still in moments, however, as though the trees were merely testing whoever was listening to them.
“So, yeah – I still don’t know how you did it,” Peter gestured with his head toward the house, “You know: talk to the mother without looking like you were judging her.”
Agnes took a breath, then released it slowly.
“Maybe I wasn’t – at least not at first,” Agnes replied, “There was something she said when she was still upstairs. She said her son was all she had.”
“A lot of parents say that,” Peter shrugged, hands still leaning on the porch floor, weight still tilted toward Agnes, “It’s a common response from parents that have only one child, especially when that parent is almost always alone.”
“Maybe,” Agnes said, “But the way she said it – it sounded more like she didn’t want to be alone. Like she never really had been alone all her life, and she couldn’t imagine how she’d survive without her son. Like he really was all she knew she really had… Which makes sense if you take the money and property and power out of their equation.”
Peter stretched his legs out on the stairs, and watched his feet as he rested his ankles on one step.
“And their youth, too,” Agnes piped up.
“Huh?” Peter turned his head to her.
“Lose everything including your youth and you’ll see what little you have,” Agnes answered, “That kind of resonated with me.”
“You’re not old.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
They listened to the forest for a moment. The howls were gone now, and were replaced by the creaking of branches as a wind whipped through the trees. Somewhere within the darkness was bamboo, long, straight bodies dancing, swaying, croaking like closing doors. It alternated between fighting against the breeze and giving way; still, it did not fall.
Agnes spoke when the forest grew quiet again.
“I didn’t mean to think of myself then,” Agnes paused, played with the rings on her fingers, “But she – she just sounded human, and – and I think I knew then that she wanted – had to tell the truth.”
“Or she was being selfish,” Peter said, not flinching when Agnes turned to him abruptly, “She could see her son suffering, and all she could think about was herself.”
“Or she was afraid,” Agnes added, “All she could think of was that her son would die, and she couldn’t see a future without him.”
Peter looked at her for a moment, then watched as she turned her rings round and round and round. Agnes met his eyes, but did not speak more; instead, she trained her gaze on his shoes, as his toes tapped out an imaginary beat.
The night was falling faster and darker now: there were stars and fewer clouds to break the sky; the bats had all sprung awake and were fluttering a song of bass notes through the forest; there was howling, and barking, and scratching, and scurrying. The house behind them seemed to let out a sigh, as though to say that the evening had been something of a relief, but there was a long way to go before all would truly be at peace.
They sat in silence for what seemed to be hours, Peter’s foot tapping the rhythm of the chirps of faraway roosting birds, Agnes playing with her rings and allowing her fingers to dance an unheard tune. He watched her fingers. She watched his feet. They did not speak a word.
The door behind them finally opened, letting out a blast of yellow light, as well as the tall shadow of Fr. Matteo.
“Everything all right back here?” The priest sounded faint, as though he were speaking from behind a thick screen. Agnes looked back and found a pale, drawn man, the one whom she recognized at the end of every exorcism. He seemed even weaker now, as though Fr. Matteo had seen more demons than he had expected and fewer angels than he had hoped.
“We’re all right, Father,” she called back, “Have you had something to eat?”
“The soup, thank you,” Fr. Matteo gestured with one hand to Peter, who had still not turned around, “It will be enough until we get back to the hotel. What about you two?”
“Done and ready to leave when you are,” Agnes answered hastily. Then, when she realized that she had been too casual with the duties of exorcists, “Or at least ready to leave way before your job is done.”
“Which might be soon,” Fr. Matteo opened the door a little wider, so that both Agnes and Peter could not help looking. There was Fr. Anthony, on a cellphone, talking to someone in his deepest, sternest, possibly even angriest voice. There was no screaming or screeching, but an even tone that said that there were no questions or requests in his words, only orders that had to be followed.
“Yes, we have been told repeatedly that you are a busy man – but a notice of twelve hours is hardly a problem, I believe, where your only child is concerned,” he waved to Agnes and Peter outside as he met their eyes, only to turn around again. Beyond him, Agnes saw the mother, standing with arms hugging her body, face lined with both worry and fear. She saw Agnes, smiled with only the merest curve in her lips, and gave the girl a slow, friendly nod as Fr. Matteo closed the door.
“We’re leaving in maybe fifteen minutes,” Fr. Matteo said, just as the noise of the brothers opening the front door nearly threatened to drown out his voice, “Blessings and prayers out front before we drive back.”
“We’ll be there, Father,” Agnes answered.
“And we’ll talk about the translations, Peter,” Fr. Matteo addressed the psychologist almost too pointedly, “Maybe later over dinner. Let’s look at the – uh – sentence construction.”
“All right,” Peter answered, “I’m here first thing tomorrow?”
Fr. Matteo thought for a while, “Maybe around lunch, with the whole family. Do you need the whole group to be here with you?”
“From my assessment – no,” Peter paused, as though he were reminded of something, “Except Fr. Anthony, for confessions.”
“No. They won’t like it.”
“Very well,” Fr. Matteo opened the door and stepped into the house, “Fifteen minutes. See you then.”
“And that being said – ho bisogno di andare ad un’altra lezione con Padre Antonio,” Agnes said lightly, as Fr. Matteo closed the door, and as she made ready to leave. She perhaps expected Peter to stand up, as she sprang up on her knees, leaving her hands at her sides. Perhaps Peter expected her to not leave so quickly, so that he did not reach up in time to take her again by the arm. This time, their hands met, with neither of them acknowledging that their fingers had now loosely intertwined.
“I’m sorry,” he pressed her palm lightly against his, “About everything earlier.”
“I’m not,” she smiled, so that he looked up at her, but still did not let her go. “At least we got to talk about it.”
Agnes’ fingers grew warm, and her cheeks appeared rosier in the yellow light coming from the windows, “You can say that.”
Peter allowed her hand to rest on his shoulder. He held on to her for a little while longer. “A few minutes,” he said, still looking up at Agnes, “I’ll be there in a few minutes. You can go ahead. I’ll see you guys outside.”
She patted his shoulder, their hands still joined, then turned to leave. Her fingers lingered in his for a while, and Peter reached back, as far as his body and arms would allow, before he could stretch his muscles no further and had to let her go.
He heard the group still moving around the house. Syl was still taking photographs and talking to John in their shared vernacular. Someone was telling Al to get some sleep, and someone was telling the mother to wait until the next day to talk – really talk to her son. There were boxes being moved out of the house, tables being moved to their original places, and the door of the van being opened and closed.
Someone turned the key in the van’s ignition. The van started up, as though it had never died earlier.
Peter stood up, voice low, laugh directed at the evening.
“You can never bury your lies,” he made for the house, “Cuando vais a aprender nunca?”
He took a deep breath, walked into the light, and closed the door on the darkness behind him.